Being and Rhetoric: Speculative Hermeneutics and the Esoteric Cosmological Discourse of Antiquity

Being and Rhetoric: Speculative Hermeneutics and the Esoteric Cosmological Discourse of Antiquity

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A lectern stood nearby; with hands that shook
I placed upon it one enticing book,
Deciphered at a glance the picture writing,
As in a dream we find ourselves reciting
A poem or lesson we have never learned.
At once I soared aloft to starry spaces
Of the soul, and with the zodiac turned,
Where all the revelations of all the races,
Whatever intuition has divined,
Millennial experience of all nations,
Harmoniously met in new relations,
Old insights with new symbols recombined,
So that in minutes or in hours as I read
I traced once more the whole path of mankind,
And all that men have ever done and said
Disclosed its inner meaning to my mind.
I read, and saw those hieroglyphic forms
Couple and part, and coalesce in swarms,
Dance for a while together, separate,
Once more in newer patterns integrate,
A kaleidoscope of endless metaphors—
And each some vaster, fresher sense explores.
-Herman Hesse, from “A Dream”
in Magister Ludi(405)


Something involving that many big words could easily destabilize time itself.
-Professor Farnsworth, in Futurama


1. Introduction

Esoteric literature has long suffered from the familiar sort of misinformed bias that always obscures the ideas of marginal Others. Fueled by science-fiction literature, New Age commercialism, and the Hollywood obsession with Harry Potter, our modern imaginations have conjured up stereotypes of wizards in pointy hats and flowing capes. There seem to be at least three popular attitudes to the study of magic:

  1. a naïve and Romantic fascination with the exotic;
  2. a heresiological fear and loathing, based in fear of the daimonic; and
  3. a modernist disdain for silly superstitions and fairy-tales.

Yet none of these attitudes demonstrate a rigorously academic examination of the actual history of esoteric studies. In order to form an educated and critical opinion on the nature of magic, we must return to the classics of the ancient world, and explore the roots of these modern fantasies.

And, in doing so, we find a rich academic culture steeped in rhetoric and textual exegesis. Modern esoteric traditions such as Masonry, Golden Dawn, Kabbalah, and Qi Gong are rooted in medical and philosophical theories that were among the best in their time. In both Neo-Platonism and esoteric Buddhism, we can observe an interesting historical trend. Philosophers of mind and science began to discover that the world which we inhabit is made of signs.

Materialism, which claims to be rigorously empirical, is actually founded in a number of unquestioned axiomatic assumptions. The self never experiences matter directly, but rather experiences only phenomenal presentations to consciousness. From these phenomena, we infer abstract notions about matter and energy. But a radical empiricism would confess that our world is a play of sensory signs, which only we can interpret. And Aristotelian logic, grounded in principles of noncontradiction, is only one way of interpreting the world. Poetical interpretations, scriptural intertextuality, and dream exegesis are all other means by which humans make sense of their world.

If the reality we inhabit merely comprises phenomena associated by interpretation, then visual and performative poetics can be inscribed on the world. For esoteric thinkers, nature is not seen as dead or inert, but rather pregnant with information. The whole world is a text—history is an unfolding message from the gods, and the world is not matter but meaning. God is the great Mind that thinks the world into Being. And philosophers could become One with this Mind, if only they could let go of their materialist delusions.

Some of these ideas will sound familiar to postmodern readers. Today’s universities are at home with debates over ideology and the social construction of reality, and current literary and cultural theory is awash with notions of fragmentation, semiosis, simulation and construction. On the other hand, critical theory is not so comfortable with ideas about gods. Theology, by definition, is often considered to be out of the purview of serious secular scholarship, if not an outright throwback to more primitive thought.

This discomfort with theological jargon has often obscured the work of some of history’s most brilliant minds. Academic disciplines that were originally banned for reasons of orthodoxy have remained marginal simply because of their unfamiliarity. This is unfortunate for two reasons. (1) First, because it is bad scholarship (not to mention unfair) to dismiss serious academic work as superstitious hocus-pocus, without first engaging it with rigour. (2) And second, because esoteric discourse may contain a wealth of material that could be useful to current academic research, and we will never know if we do not take the time to look.

It is time to re-examine the esoteric literary tradition, and to consider its relevance to modern theory. Considered from an emic perspective, esoteric hermeneutics can challenge and inform modern critical thought in a general way. And considered etically, these ideas can specifically inform new insights toward a theory of human religious systems.

In the following pages, I will consider some ideas in contemporary hermeneutics and philosophy that may bring coherence to the esoteric writings of antiquity, and I present these ancient writings for consideration in this new light. The paper will unfold in four stages. (1) First, I will consider the ideas of four influential philosophers from the 20th century C.E., beginning with Martin Heidegger, whose ontology of Da-sein will be the foundation of my hermeneutical model. (2) Next, I will discuss the cosmological writings of Anaxagoras and Plato (and briefly mention the influence on their work by Parmenides and Pythagoras) in the Greek High Classical period. (3) I will then show how these ideas intersected with postcolonial Abrahamic and Egyptian thought during the Hellenistic period, toward the emergence of fully esoteric thought and practice. (4) Finally, I will consider some foundational texts from the esoteric Buddhist traditions of Tibetan Vajrayana and Japanese Shingon. These writings, which often appear impenetrably obscure to modern “Western” audiences, will be shown to be highly coherent when compared with Hellenistic esoteric theory.

2. Modern Hermeneutical Perspectives

Heidegger: Ontology, Cosmology, Hermeneutics, and Selfhood

In Being and Time, Heidegger offered a number of insights which may be quite important to the study of esoteric hermeneutics. I will begin by summarizing each of these, and then I will discuss them in more detail, so as to lay the foundations for a further investigation into our subject.

    1. All intellectual pursuits are in some sense ontological, but all are dependent for their existence on the particular and unique kind of being that produces them, which is subjectivity itself. Thus all intellectual pursuits must eventually arrive at a contemplation of the ontology of subjectivity.


    1. Temporality is the ground of subjectivity.


    1. Subjectivity constructs spatiality by interacting with objects.


    1. Spatiality and seeing-as constitute the categorial framework that permits interpretation.


    1. Astronomical measurement of time is a spatial framework by which we apprehend temporality; it is not to be confused with actual time.


    1. It is only by means of a hermeneutical circle involving the interpretation of entities in terms of pre-existent, categorial frameworks that we acquire the means by which we may develop new frameworks.


Heidegger posits the existence of a unique kind of being of which the understanding of being is an essential attribute. (Here “being” can be understood in both senses: as a discrete entity and as existence-as-such.) Such a being, called by Heidegger “there-being” or Da-sein, is to be distinguished from other beings in that it is fundamentally concerned with self-understanding. In this sense, human existence is an example of Da-sein, while the existence of mathematical abstractions is not, because humans try to understand themselves, and math does not. Part of this understanding involves the contemplation, not only of the local “self” as it normally understood, but also of the relations between the self and its objects (Heidegger, Being and Time 10).

Even though it is the nature of Da-sein to self-understand, this understanding is initially naïve and is always conditioned by its encounters with the world (ibid. 14). Furthermore, the subject’s relation to the world is always constantly apprehended as a whole, but this whole is manifold, changing, and unique in each instance (ibid. 10). Consequently, such understanding can at times find itself entangled in error, and must struggle to develop and know ever-better approximations of the conditions of its own existence. Heidegger calls this struggle “taking care” (Besorgen) (ibid. 169-211).

All academic arts and sciences and also other intellectual pursuits such as poetry and politics are systems of interpretations that Da-sein applies in its attempts to “take care” of its confusion about itself (ibid. 14). This means that the nature of Da-sein is a limiting condition on the nature of intellectual activity; that is, intellectual activity is the way that it is because it is a product of Da-sein. If we are to be rigorous in our intellectual pursuits, we must first be rigorous in our understanding of these pursuits as systems, before concerning ourselves with the content of information that these systems provide us. And since these systems of intellectual activity are conditioned by the nature of Da-sein, we must begin our investigations with an inquiry into the ontology of Da-sein itself (ibid. 9-10). By using the terms “first,” “before,” and begin,” I here mean ontological priority, not chronological order. In fact, the rigorous examination of Da-sein is not usually where we begin in time, but it is inevitably where we will end up if we take any of our intellectual pursuits seriously enough. Heidegger acknowledges that, although his particular development of the ontology of Da-sein is a unique intellectual contribution, it has nevertheless been intuited and anticipated since antiquity by historically significant philosophers such as Aristotle and Aquinas (ibid. 12).

Heidegger objects to the understanding of time as a mode of space. Rather, time is “that from which Da-sein tacitly understands and interprets something like being at all” (ibid. 15-16). By this it is meant that coming-to-understand is a temporal process. To separate time from subjectivity would be an artificial and false step. Time is not external to subjectivity but is rather its ground. Likewise, subjectivity is not located “at” a particular place co-extensive with the space occupied by its body. Rather, Da-sein makes manifest (either by creation or by discovery) relations of space as it interacts with its objects. Space-as-such is a framework of relations that we develop as we attempt to take care of our situation in the world. We develop a sense of location by situating the objects we apprehend (including our own bodies) within this framework. Consequently, time is not a mode of space but is rather the condition that “embraces” our attempts to manifest space (ibid. 336-337).

Conventional interpretations of time as spatial are a consequence of misapprehensions of the measurements we impose on time by clocks and calendars, and, ultimately, by the passage of astronomical cycles. These measurements are spatial extensions of duration, but time itself is much more personal than this; the familiar experience that “time flies when we are having fun” but drags when we are bored indicates that there is a fluidity to time that has not been completely contained by strict spatial frameworks.

Heidegger also resists the Wittgensteinian notion1 that we must remain silent regarding that whereof we cannot formulate predicative propositions (Wittgenstein 189). For Heidegger, the act of perception is inherently interpretive; Da-sein always perceives its object as a particular entity (such as a door or a table). This interpretive perception (which, in a Wittgensteinian vein, we could call “seeing-as”) is necessarily prior to language in that we must be able to perceive an object as something in order to write or talk about it. But at the same time, it is also prior to pure, uninterpreted perceptions. Heidegger calls such perceptions a “failure to understand… [the object] any more” (Heidegger, op.cit.139-40), the implication being that we must either intentionally suspend our judgments or have them confused by ambiguity, else we will naturally and instinctively perceive the world as a set of certain things in a set of certain relations. In making this claim, Heidegger suggests that Da-sein is not limited to positivist attempts to understand what the facts are—the end of which must inevitably be Wittgensteinian uncertainty—but also explores how things are with respect to a set of heuristic paradigms.

For Heidegger, the world is always already apprehended via a categorial framework, which he calls “fore-conceptions” (ibid. 140-41). But this framework is constructed out of spatial distinctions between the similarities and differences of objects that Da-sein manifests in the process of its taking care. Since these distinctions are necessarily seen-as specific entities within the context of that which is already understood, it follows that fore-conceptions evolve. We discover the world as mediated by our paradigms, but at the same time we modify our paradigms in accordance with our discoveries about the world. While Da-sein itself may not be circular, its means of self-interpreting necessarily are. This is not a “vicious circle,” since it is not grounded in an attempt to logically and rigorously prove that such-and-such a proposition is true. Rather, it is the natural and necessary means by which a subject comes to understand (ibid. 142-44). We must therefore be careful to distinguish between our knowledge of facts (which, of course, should not be achieved by circular reasoning) and our understanding of them within a paradigmatic frame of reference (which is always already circular).

Körner: Facts, Values, and Categorial Frameworks

Stephan Körner notes the important ontological distinction between “constructive thinking” about “alternative possibilities” and “non-constructive thinking” about “unalterable facts” (Körner, Categorial Frameworks 26). Where factual thinking is concerned with what actually is the case, constructive logic is concerned with the hypothesis of possible scenarios (“situations” is the term he uses) and their possible consequences, where each scenario (and its consequent scenarios) is taken to be a collection of propositions attributed to a collection of entities. He observes, however, that there might be propositions which are valid in all possible scenarios (ibid. 27-30). Such propositions would presumably be the ultimate goal of ontology, which seeks to understand not only what is, but also what must be. At any rate, it is unnecessary to privilege either constructive thinking or factual thinking, since both are equally valid (ibid. 31-32).

Furthermore, “explanation is framework-bound” while information is not. It is therefore fallacious to conflate explanation with information. Yet this fallacy often underlies the critical skepticism that drives the contemporary academic world. Scientific positivism tends to assume that the accumulation of factual information is sufficient as the best explanation of reality. Meanwhile, cultural relativism tends to assume that information is lost when it is transferred from one categorial framework to another, and therefore no explanatory framework can adequately understand the facts explored and described by other cultural systems and language-games. However heated the debates might rage between what Körner calls “scientism” and what he calls “anthropologism,” the distinction between the two approaches must remain a superficial one, since they both naïvely partake in the explanation-information fallacy (ibid. 64-65).

Körner makes some interesting observations about the way that our categorial frameworks evolve. He points out that the familiarity of our own frameworks makes them seem trivial, while the unfamiliarity of other frameworks makes them seem absurd (ibid. 65). Often, the attempt to render our frameworks explicit is a conservative move—an attempt to defend our position by clarifying it. But if such attempts reveal inconsistencies or aporetic paradoxes in our worldviews, they can be powerful catalysts for the emergence of revolutionary paradigms (ibid. 70-72). Even so, conservative reinterpretations remain an ongoing possibility, since it is always possible to demote factual ontologies to constructive heuristics in order to preserve them.

Körner’s arguments seem to suggest that our most basic assumptions about order and location are always grounded in fluid and evolving negotiation, and this is as true of contemporary scholarship as it is true of the cultures we study. Even Franco-German phenomenology has failed to prove that it is uniquely and universally true (ibid. 72-73), despite the obvious value of a theory of Da-sein as a working heuristic for the study of spatiotemporal meaning-frameworks. As we have seen, this need not lead us to a nihilistic skepticism; rather than reduce all truth to a zero-state, we can embrace a plurality of possible explanations. Speculative metaphysical systems ought to be tolerated, not on the grounds that they are factually true, but rather on the grounds that (a) they do not pretend to prove the unprovable and (b) they can sometimes result in novel categorial frameworks (ibid. 73-74). That speculative philosophy does not constitute a falsifiable science as such is no reason to deny its validity as an academic pursuit.

The inappropriateness of applying factual thinking to moral and aesthetic judgments (i.e. that some judgments are “true” and others “false”) is no barrier to constructive thinking. Körner points out that in order to make choices we must engage in constructive hypothesis about possible actions, and that, furthermore, in order to make moral decisions we must engage in constructive thinking about these choices. Morality therefore constitutes a sort of “meta-framework” which allows us simultaneously to postulate various alternative choices and various alternative opinions about these choices (Körner, Metaphysics 20-30).
Aesthetics, too, is a framework. Communication functions by representing an entity to someone, and this entity can either be a concept or a feeling. Körner makes the brilliant observation (ibid. 33-34) that identity and representation are only distinct by a matter of degree. Where x and y are only identifiable in some cases, (presumably because they share only some attributes) we say that x represents y. But a special class of representation is actual identity—that is, where x represents y because x is y. Here, x and y are identifiable in all cases, due—according to Leibniz’ Law of the Indiscernibility of Identicals—to the fact that they share all attributes in common. When representing an entity, we can—as, for example, in the case of mathematical logic, or visual stick figures—idealize the abstraction to the point that almost nothing is common between the image and the original. On the other hand, we can also render images that are so similar to originals that the two are nearly indistinguishable. An example of such similarity is the evoking of strong sympathies in an audience with the pathos of an artist by means of a dramatic figure or a musical composition. While bare information can evoke some basic emotional sympathy in the audience, it is the particular arrangement of this information that specifies and intensifies the viewer’s response. The aesthetic object constitutes a framework of related representations, and therefore no aspect of the object can be altered without affecting its impact on the viewer (ibid. 35-39).

To sum up, then, Körner’s contribution to our discussion is threefold. (1) First, he agrees with Heidegger that facts may be universally valid but are nevertheless dependent on our categorial frameworks in order to be meaningful. (2) Next, he shows how these frameworks are forced to redefine themselves in the face of foreign frameworks. (3) Finally, he shows that categorial frameworks govern not only our ontological interpretations but also our moral and aesthetic judgments. This last point is especially important with respect to our understanding of religion, since religion is not merely ontological but also moral and aesthetic. To this end, it is worth remarking that Körner specifically corrects Wittgenstein’s nihilistic relativism:

Wittgenstein is right when at the end of the Tractatus he declares what only shows itself is unsayable and that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. Yet whereof one cannot speak in sentences expressing true propositions, of that one might be able to speak in sentences used as poetic or other nonpropositional representations (ibid. 144).

If Körner is correct, then religion may be able successfully to go where propositional logic cannot. It would certainly be invalid to analyze a work of art for its truth content, if truth is understood merely as propositional veracity. However, art can meaningfully be called “true” if it succeeds in representing to the viewer those concepts and judgments that would otherwise be ineffable.


Whitehead: Speculative Cosmology and the Engineering of Language

According to Whitehead, speculative philosophy strives to fulfill four functions (Whitehead 4-5), which I will briefly list here, and then discuss momentarily:

  1. coherence
  2. logic
  3. applicability, and
  4. adequacy.

At the same time, it seeks to avoid two fallacies (ibid. 11-12):

  1. misplaced concreteness, and
  2. the assumption that its premises are sufficiently clear and distinct to disprove propositions.

Whitehead takes a more propositional turn than do either Heidegger or Körner, but generally agrees with them in principle when he claims that metaphysical first principles are not unknowable, but rather unavailable to knowledge because of poor imagination, which he attributes to “weakness of insight” and “deficiencies of language” (ibid. 6). Speculative philosophy is fundamentally phenomenological in that it seeks a complete account of what has actually been observed. But purely empirical methods are inadequate to the task of universal knowledge, because they proceed by noticing differences—that is, the play of presence and absence of particulars and their attributes, from moment to moment. Since ontological first principles are, by definition, always present, empiricism usually fails to take note of them. In order to fully grasp them, thought experiments that hypothesize other non-real scenarios are necessary (ibid. 6-7).

According to Whitehead, incoherence is often indulged in those metaphysical models that we advocate, as well as those that are novel, while at the same time it is criticized when it occurs in models that are held by others, especially ones that have attained to a status of orthodoxy. Be that as it may, incoherence is present in every cosmological system, and we must strive for coherence by recognizing that the occurrence of any event is a consequence of every other occurrence (ibid. 9-11).

Whether or not the universe is actually unified, we perceive it as such, and strive for such unity in our accounts. Logical deduction from first principles is a method of speculative philosophy. But the discovery of a reductio ad absurdum does not indicate that a certain premise is false, since there is no way to be certain that all the others are true. Rather, it indicates that coherence has not been achieved among the totality of first principles. Thus it is a false step to attempt to prove or disprove a specific proposition within the context of discourse on first principles (ibid. 11-12).

At the same time, it is also fallacious to ignore some aspects of entities because other aspects fit nicely into a proposed cosmology. This is what Whitehead famously called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” A cosmology must be adequate to describe all aspects of reality, and cannot ignore those which do not fit, else it will fall victim to incoherence.

Propositions normally only speak about the particular, but, as we have already seen, in order to be meaningful they must be grounded in universal principles. Furthermore, first principles are usually discovered as particular factors discerned in particular disciplines, and they must be generalized and extended in order to be applicable to the universe as a whole. It is therefore the task of speculative philosophy to re-engineer language in order to render it more universally adequate (ibid. 16-17). Language is inherently ambiguous when divorced from context. (For example: is the word “bark” a verb or a noun?) A system of philosophical jargon attempts to make fact more explicit by reinterpreting this context, and it will therefore necessarily disagree with other jargons, precisely because it does not find them to be adequate. No speculative philosophy can start from perfectly clear and distinct propositions, because language is needed to elucidate illustrative examples, and illustrative examples are needed to elucidate language. There are no matters of fact that are unconditioned by interpretive context. Philosophy does not seek to invent interpretation, but rather to render it more adequate (ibid. 16-22).

It is not within the scope of the present discussion to judge whether or not any particular cosmology is coherent and adequate—that is a matter of apologetics that would not be appropriate to secular religious studies. I have drawn attention to Whitehead’s theory for another reason. This is to point out that, within the domain of cosmological discourse, propositional first principles are tentative and must be negotiated, not on the grounds of veracity, but according to their ability to fit within a general system.

This fact has important consequences. While scientific discourse is correct in seeking parsimony and conciseness in its hypotheses, speculative philosophy does not pursue the same goals as science. In speculative cosmology the primary goal is to accommodate all aspects of reality, and thus the best propositions are sometimes the least informative. For example, it is perfectly true and meaningful to say that “Reality is.” Not much information is given by this statement, but it is (probably) universally true under all possible scenarios.

Thus we should not be surprised when centuries-old metaphysical discourses begin to dissolve into what appear to be empty tautologies. This may not be a sign of intellectual pallor. Rather, it may be the natural evolution of a very robust philosophical system that has replaced context-specific propositions about fact with aesthetically creative arrangements of vague but universally true statements. Such arrangements would be able to represent highly subtle moral or emotional messages as local and particular manifestations of a total cosmic order. Early logical-positivist criticisms against Scholastic angels dancing on pins may utterly have missed the point of such discourse; what is essential is not the fact of the angels, but rather the elegance of the dance.

Whitehead argues that the task of philosophy is to “weld… imagination and common sense into a restraint on specialists” and to “make it easier to conceive the infinite variety of specific instances which rest unrealized in the womb of nature.” Where science is concerned with the harmonizing of rationality with objects (i.e. the locating of objects in an organized system), religion seeks to harmonize rationality with subjects (ibid. 24-26)—in Heidegger’s terms, to better understand Da-sein’s condition of being.

It is in this specific sense of religion that Heidegger’s phenomenology points to a systematic theology as the ground of all discourse—whether or not such a theology understands itself as referring to supernatural persons. Whitehead’s philosophy allows that such a “theology” might borrow terminology from the texts and practices of religions, and extend these terms beyond their traditional usage to accommodate more general principles. For my part, I do not think that I am stretching the term “theology” beyond its natural application; it is clear, for example, that the theologies of Aristotle or Aquinas are of a much more abstract flavour than those of the cult devotees within either Greek paganism or Christianity.

With respect to this last point, it is worth reaffirming Whitehead’s point about the necessity of avoiding fallacies of misplaced concreteness. Speculative philosophy—including what I have here referred to as “systematic theology”—is concerned with the system of general aspects of things; these aspects are obscured by obsessive emphasis on some “detailed mode” of examination (ibid. 25). It would be just as valid to argue that literalist cultic theologies are misplaced concretizations of systematic theological principles, as it is to argue that the latter are over-extended generalizations of the former. Religions are symbol-systems that can structure both conservative and liberal discourses, and it is fallacious for either discourse to accuse the other of “appropriation.” Speculative philosophy is always on the lookout for hidden, novel aspects of things, and the ambiguity of religious systems affords great opportunities for cosmologists to mine a wealth of hidden meanings. It is therefore possible to understand esoteric hermeneutics as methods of extracting novel categorial frameworks from established religious tradition. This is academic activity, not cult behaviour. Yet such hermeneutics can also inform cult activity or religious morality insofar as all religious traditions must respond to the contemporary scholarship of their socio-historical location.

Arieti: Mystery, Creativity, and Ecstatic Logic

Silvano Arieti agrees with much of what has already been said, and we will not repeat it here. But, as a representative of the psychoanalytic tradition, he adds a few other points that are worth considering. In general, Arieti’s project is to indicate that intellectual creativity arises when the primary and secondary processes of cognition have been harmonized. Primary process thought is fundamentally assimilating—it seeks to identify x and y on the ground of some common predicate. Secondary process thought is analytical—it seeks to categorize x and y with respect to the differences that distinguish them (Arieti 66-98). We can already see how the integration of primary and secondary process would be beneficial to cosmological pursuits, since cosmology seeks above all else the unification of plural diversity within a single, common framework.
But Arieti has a few more specific points in mind. He argues that the essential feature of a religion is its concern for the relation between humanity and the numinous. Whether or not deities actually exist is irrelevant to the argument; the point is that some experiences exist, which are often interpreted as divine. He lists three significant aspects of creative innovation in religion:

    1. the innovator’s ability directly to apprehend supernatural forces, rather than merely professing belief in them


    1. the ability directly to contact these powers, rather than influencing them by indirect means


    1. the ability directly to “visualize”—rather than merely adopting—normative lifestyles with (a) the ability to affect the “totality of man [sic]” and (b) some “transcendental meaning” (ibid. 242-43).


Arieti argues that philosophical theology tends to evolve over time from the concrete to the abstract, such that the highly concrete and local gods of nature worship—Arieti unfortunately uses the term “idolatry” but his point is still well-taken—are replaced over time with distant pagan pantheons and finally with iconoclastic monotheisms. This process of abstraction can be seen as a drift from primary process to secondary process (ibid. 244-45), in that the divine is increasingly viewed as a concept in a hierarchy of relations, rather than a similarity of predicates across diverse events seen as synchronistically related.

But religious ecstasy reverses this drift. Arieti points out that, while paranoiacs appropriate secondary process concepts for the development of their delusions, ecstatic mystics appropriate the schizophrenic logic and passions of primary process thought to inform the subtleties of their theological constructs (ibid. 250-51). In this way, psychotics and mystics seem prima facie identical, but close inspection reveals that, while the former exhibit disintegrated psychic and social functions, the latter tend to be highly successful theological innovators. Poets and artists also appropriate psychotic-like thought patterns in their work, without losing their grasp on secondary process reasoning (ibid. 253). But Arieti notes that religious ecstasy goes beyond aesthetic experience in three important ways (ibid. 253). (1) First, the mystic is somehow prepared for the experience by religious conditioning. (2) Second, the mystic intuits a belief in a supreme value (or value-framework) and a belief that this value is sanctioned by the divine—even though these beliefs are usually repressed beforehand. (3) Finally, ecstasy is not a mere emotional state but is a full (if temporary) “regression” to primary process by means of an autohypnotic trance, even though this trance is often experienced passively as possession by divinity.

The integration of primary and secondary processes is thus achieved by the mystic when the highly complex concepts of abstract philosophical theology are “carried into” the primary process trance. Here they can be assimilated into an intricate web of cosmic correspondences that were formerly obscured by the misplaced concreteness of secondary process categorial frameworks. If the mystic remained absorbed in ecstasy, we might reasonably call the event pathological. But the person returns to sobriety with a strongly integrated vision of cosmic order, which adds new insights to those held by the uninitiated. This vision—which exceeds that of even the most educated theologian, since it has access to an entirely different and more universal mode of cognition—releases the mystic from dependence on dogmatic systems and reinvests charismatic authority from the offices of tradition to the self. Of course, this does not mean that mysticism is superior to philosophical theology in any moral sense. But it does allow mysticism to advance beyond systematic theology with respect to the cognition of universal predicates.

First Principles: Toward a Speculative Framework of Speculative Frameworks

Given the foregoing discussion, it now seems possible to construct something like a theory of esoteric cosmology. (1) We will define “systematic theology” as the contemplation of an ultimate order that transcends and comprises the totality of particular facts, morals, judgments and subjective states, and the extension of notions beyond their conventional usage for the sake of expressing aspects of this total order. (2) We will define “mysticism” as the ecstatic transcendence of theological frameworks for the sake of apprehending universal predicates. (3) We will define “esotericism” as that set of beliefs and practices which seeks to inform both systematic theology and mysticism by exposing aspects of religious systems that were previously hidden or obscured by misplaced concretizations of categorial frameworks. (4) We will propose 6 levels of cognitive advance toward apprehension of total cosmic order:

    1. philosophical naïveté


    1. intellectual pursuits grounded in specific disciplines


    1. contemplation of the cosmological/theological ground of subjectivity that conditions other pursuits


    1. abandonment of logical argumentation in favour of aesthetic arrangements of conceptual and emotive representations


    1. expansion of aesthetic experience into full-blown ecstasy


    1. the return to sobriety with a fully-integrated worldview


(5) Finally, we will propose that esoteric beliefs and practices should not be interpreted literally as correspondence theories of truth (since doing so would only lead to the conclusion that esotericism is an irrational neurosis), but rather as highly sophisticated rhetorical-hermeneutical methodologies, designed to catalyze transcendence beyond each of the stages listed (possibly including the sixth).

With these five principles in mind, we can embark on a survey of esoteric cosmological discourses in antiquity, with a view to the way that these principles have manifested. We will begin with Greek thought during the Classical period. Here we can observe the emergence of a cosmology that locates the space-time order within a cosmic mind, and the individual human mind within that order. In the post-colonial culture of Hellenized Egypt, we witness the transformation of Classical cosmological discourse into a performative, multimedia rhetoric designed to launch the individual soul into cosmic gnosis. Next, we will compare these findings with the metaphysical and cult literature of esoteric Buddhism. In Buddhist Tantra and Shingon, we find recurrent evidence of a general belief in the power of symbol to mediate between mystical omniscience and the alienated individual soul. In Buddhist esotericism, as in Neo-Platonic thought, the inadequacy of propositional affirmations is emphasized, and a rhetoric emphasizing the nonduality of opposites is inscribed on the transverbal signs of a semiotic universe.

3. Classical Foundations

Anaxagoras: Mind as the Cosmic Foundation

Anaxagoras appears to be the first major Greek philosopher to suggest that the Universe is an order governed by a single mind. Parmenides had by this time developed his famous proof for the doctrine that entities cannot emerge ex nihilo. The Parmenidean doctrine presented a significant problem for philosophers of time. For time appears to have at least two marks that enable us to notice its passage: (1) the repetition of familiar past events (such as seasonal rotations and zodiacal revolutions); and (2) the emergence of entirely novel events, such as the birth of a new person or the invention of a new tool. But if Parmenides was right, then the occurrence of novelty would be forbidden; although the components of a new entity might be repetitions, the overall arrangement or pattern of these components would have to emerge out of nothingness, and this could not be allowed. Anaxagoras, eager to preserve Parmenides’ theory (McKirahan 199-200, DK 59B17)2, was forced to account for the appearance of novelty without allowing the actual existence of new events.

To do so, he developed an ingenious model: separation due to centrifugal force. He writes: “All things were together, unlimited in both amount and smallness/ For the small too was unlimited… And when (or, since) all things were together, nothing was manifest on account of smallness” (ibid. 196DK 59B1.1-3). An infinitely dense object would be, for practical purposes, imperceptible. Yet on separating, its parts would become progressively more rarified, such that they would at first appear to emerge out of nothing, and then continue to expand until they appeared to dissolve back into nothing. Furthermore, sparse objects passing across or through one another would produce temporary objects of greater density which would also appear to emerge from and submerge into nothingness, and these objects could even be recreated under the right conditions, thus allowing for the possibility of repetition. Thus the Parmenidean problem was solved: both repetition and novelty could be accounted for merely by rotation, expansion, and condensation.

Yet Anaxagoras was also quick to discover a problem with this theory: one that would later come to vex the Big Bang cosmologists of the 20th century CE. Expansion is, in a certain sense, the creation of extra space between entities. If creation ex nihilo is forbidden, where did all the extra space come from? His answer is that the primordial aer and aether that make up the sky are also being separated, and that the expansion is therefore not occurring within a material plenum. Rather, the medium of expansion is infinite Mind itself, and no extra space has been created. That which always already existed has simply been shuffled within the infinite mental space that contains it.

Mind (nous), according to Anaxagoras, “is always” (ibid. 199DK 59B14)—that is to say, it is beginningless and endless, although perhaps not eternal. It is “where all other things are too… in things that have come together in the process of separating and in things that have separated off” (ibid. 199DK 59B14). Kosmos is superimposed over nous, or on it, or inside it, or pervaded by it in some way. The exact spatial relation between kosmos and nous is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that they are not intermingled. All other things are intermingled, for “nothing is being completely separated off or separated apart from one another except Mind” (ibid. 199DK 59B12.14). Again: “The rest have a portion of everything, but Mind is unlimited and self-ruled and is mixed with no thing, but is alone and by itself” (ibid. 198DK 59B12.1).

The development of Anaxagorean theory left a mark on cosmology that would last for several hundred years, and—it could be argued—is still with us today in the form of some of our most enduring religious traditions. Several points are worth remarking about the model. First, it was able to embrace the plural diversity of the Many without sacrificing the basic Parmenidean intuition that Reality is unified and singular Being. Second, it accounted for celestial rotation, and showed how this rotation could be the cause of all other events in the Universe. (Indeed, we still pay tribute to this intuition by our use of the word “uni-verse.”) Third—and this is most important for our present purposes—it rendered consciousness (a) identical with pure Being itself, and (b) utterly transcendent of—yet somehow still embodied in (ibid. 198 DK 59B11)—the cosmic order.

Plato: Being as Descending Emanation; Rhetoric as Liberating Ascent

This opened up the possibility for Plato—who was also profoundly influenced by Parmenides, and even devoted a Dialogue to him—to differentiate between the eternal Forms of the noosphere and the mere impermanent reflections they cast in the temporal world. Furthermore, it justified the Platonic notion that there is an ultimate Good which has organized the Universe. But it was up to Plato—perhaps with some help from the Pythagoreans—to develop a model of the relation between individual human minds and the transcendent nous.

On the whole, Plato’s project seems to have been an attempt to formulate a comprehensive account of the relations between humanity and the primordial forces that organize reality. Nearly all of his Dialogues address this problem in some way or other, and what is interesting about these—for our purposes here—is that his accounts seem deliberately contradictory. That is, Plato is nearly incomprehensible if we read him with a literal-correspondence hermeneutic. However, the Platonic system is rendered bravely profound if we read his corpus as a set of intentionally conflicting analogies, with each designed to isolate and correct errors in the others.

In the Timaeus, the Pythagorean astronomer Timaeus presents an account of the Creation of the world from the perspective of his science. The Creation proceeds by a number of stages, each emanating from the last (Plato, Timaeus 27c-39e). (1) There is, first of all, God, “the most sovereign cause of nature and the universe,” who is described as good, and desiring that all things should resemble him (sic) as closely as possible. (2) In order to achieve this goal, God brought the world into a state of order from a state of disorder. Thus we can assume that Chaos and God, the supremely ordered Good, coexisted without beginning. (3) Next, God took the primordial substance—presumably Chaos—and subdivided it into the Same and the Other. (4) He then “mingled” these two to produce Essence. (Recall that, in classical metaphysics, an “essence” is that set of qualities necessary for a thing to be the “same” as itself and “other” than everything else.) (5) Next, Same, Other, and Essence were recombined into a single whole. (6) This whole was then subdivided again by a complex progression of diminishing fractions. (7) Proportion having thus been created, God bent the progression of fractions into 2 concentric circular orbits, with the orbit of the Same on the outside and the orbit of the Other on the inside. (8) The inner orbit was then subdivided into 7 sub-orbits, each revolving with respect to the others in harmonic proportions. This concluded the creation of the invisible and rational world-soul. (9) Next, God created the visible body of the world. To do so, he arranged that earth, water, air, and fire should respectively be set in Golden proportions (i.e. the lesser part is to the greater part as the greater is to the whole), each to the next. (10) In order that the shape of the world-body should best “comprehend” the shapes of all the creatures it contained, it was given the shape that best comprehends all other shapes: that is, the sphere. (11) Finally, God removed from the world-body—that is, the Universe—the “six motions” of forward, backward, upward, downward, leftward, and rightward, leaving only the seventh motion, that is, rotation. This concluded the Universal architecture. (12) As a logical—but not temporal—consequence of this construction, God also achieved the creation of a “moving image of eternity”: that is, Time. (13) Next, in order to mark the passage of Time, God placed the animate “stars which have the name of planets”—not, it is worth noting, the planets themselves—in the cosmic orbits. (14) Light was set in the star of the Sun in order to illuminate the whole process, and to mark the Sun as the reference point against which to measure the other orbits. All this was done so that the periodic simultaneous conjunction of all the planetary orbits could perfectly mirror the Universe, and thereby represent the eternal.

I apologize for the lengthy account I have given here but it is necessary in order to understand the worldview that was emerging by the time Plato recorded it. To continue with the Timaeus account would take several more pages, even in the abridged form I am presenting here. It is worth noting, however, that in the next section (ibid. 39e-47e) Timaeus explains that God created the Titanic and Olympian deities as inhabitants, not architects of the cosmos. Then, desiring to create humans, God planted the immortal seeds of human souls in the various planetary stars, and commanded that the Olympians should fashion the mortal part of humanity. It is a consequence of this mixed parentage that humanity struggles to bring its passionate, mundane nature into harmony with its ordered, divine nature.
Such is the Platonic account of the relation between humanity and the cosmic order. The rest of Plato’s work can meaningfully be understood as commentaries on this analogy, each modifying it in various ways, and each presenting models for the process by which the philosopher comes to direct cognition of this order. In Book VI of his Republic (509d-513e), he uses the analogy of a “divided line” to describe the relations of the various degrees of Being (and the corresponding mental faculties that perceive them). At the lower end of the line, we find entities with the least amount of true Being: reflections, copies and images of physical objects. Next, there are the objects themselves. These two entities constitute the “visible” aspect of the world—that is, the aspect that is attainable by direct sensation. At the next level are the invisible Forms of particular entities: the principle, for example, of the postulated square of which all visible diagrams of squares are imitations. Finally, at the upper end of the line we find the highest Forms of universals, which are not postulates, but rather the “real” first principles that can only be known when the philosopher reasons past the axioms on which logic is founded, taking axioms not as absolutes but rather as provisional and discardable models.

(In this context, it is worth noting that the all-important Principle of Noncontradiction (“P cannot be not-P”) first emerges in the Republic (436b). Here, it is used as proof that the soul can be divided into parts; but one could just as well ironically reverse the argument and make it a reductio ad absurdum, showing that, since we apprehend the world as unified, singular subjects, the Principle of Noncontradiction does not obtain in matters of the soul. The slippery dichotomy between the One and the Many is nowhere better illustrated than in matters of consciousness, and perhaps this is why Plato, concerned as he was with the metaphysical consequences of epistemological problems, was so interested in moving beyond formal logic.)

Thus, the Chain of Being in Republic is presented as a descent by degrees from a purely dialectical Being to mere fixed imitations of objects. To restore humans to knowledge of true Being, then, Plato (ibid. 521d-534e) advocates an education system that advances by degrees toward universal knowledge: (1) first, arithmetic; (2) next, plane geometry; (3) then the geometry of solids; (4) then astronomy; (5) finally, contemplation of musical harmony.

The emphasis on philosophy of justice and politics in Western discourse has led to an exaggeration of the role of Republic in Plato’s overall project. Eastern Christianities, Judaisms and Islams (not to mention Platonically-influenced Buddhisms emerging from Alexander’s conquests) might protest that the Symposium offers an entirely different approach to the issue. In Symposium, the mystery priestess Diotima presents the philosopher’s journey as a sublimation of erotic urges, beginning with his (sic) first passion for a beautiful boy. Her speech is worth quoting at length:

When a man, starting from this sensible world and making his way upward by a right use of his feeling of love for boys, begins to catch sight of that beauty, he is very near his goal. This is the right way of approaching or being initiated into the mysteries of love, to begin with examples of beauty in this world, and using them as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim, from one instance of physical beauty to two and from two to all, then from physical beauty to moral beauty, and from moral beauty to the beauty of knowledge, until from knowledge of various kinds one arrives at the supreme knowledge whose sole object is that absolute beauty, and knows at last what absolute beauty is (Plato, Symposium 209e-212c).

I have dwelt at length on Plato because I feel he deserves credit as one of the primary architects of European mysticism, and that he is all too often presented as a sort of shoddy but curiously ingenious rationalist. As we have seen, Plato makes no attempt to stay within the limits of fixed logical principles—indeed, he seems to suggest that do so would not be the best use of philosophy. His corpus can only be coherently apprehended if it is read as a set of poetical analogies describing the continuum between a mundane reality and a transcendental consciousness taken to be divine. It is difficult to tell how much of this model he received from the Pythagoreans, who surely deserve their share of credit. But at any rate, it is clear that Plato offered the ancient world a coherent answer to Anaxagoreanism—one which was not merely theoretical, but also practicable. Yet his theory (unlike that of his pupil Aristotle) was never intended to be a rational science in any way like the modern positivist model. Rather, it is an aesthetic praxis designed to bring human consciousness into harmony with the universal order.

4. Hellenistic Egyptian Mystery

Philo: Holy Scripture and Platonic Gnosis

Plato’s writings were already classics when Philo of Alexandria began to develop his unique form of Jewish exegesis. There can be no question that Philo borrowed extensively from the Platonic corpus, but what he offered was a modified Platonism which diminished the role of reason in the philosopher’s path to enlightenment, and emphasized ecstasy instead. In his On the Creation of the World (54-55)3, he explains that, when Genesis 1:26 claims that “man was created after the image of God and after His likeness,” the likeness should not be understood as bodily, but rather as mental. In true Platonic fashion, Philo describes Mind as “the sovereign element of the soul,” and explains that it is patterned after the “Mind of the Universe as an archetype.” He then goes on to echo Plato’s Phaedrus (247-250), when he writes that the soul,

when on soaring wing it has contemplated the atmosphere and all its phases… is borne yet higher to the ether and the circuit of heaven, and is whirled round with the dances of planets and fixed stars, in accordance with the laws of perfect music, following that love of wisdom which guides its steps. And so, carrying its gaze beyond the confines of all substance discernible by sense, it comes to a point at which it reaches out after the intelligible world, and on descrying in that world sights of surpassing loveliness, even the patterns and the originals of the things of sense which it saw here, it is seized by a sober intoxication, like those filled with Corybantic frenzy, and is inspired, possessed by a longing far other than theirs and a nobler desire (Philo, op. cit. 54-55)

God, writes Philo, “belong[s] to the unapproachable region where there are no material forms” and is “high above both place and time” (Philo, On the Posterity of Cain 66-67). Like the Sun in the Cave allegory of the Republic (514a–520a), the radiance of God blinds the philosopher “by the flashing of the rays” (Philo, The Special Laws 58-62). Moreover, while God himself is One and utterly transcendent, he issues “powers” symbolized in Scripture by the cherubim. Philo explains that a “voice in [his] own soul” told him that God’s “highest and chiefest powers are two, even goodness and sovereignty…. And in the midst of the two there is a third which unites them, Reason (the Logos) for it is through reason that God is both ruler and good” (Philo, On the Cherubim 69).

The myth of the Seven Days of Creation recounted in Genesis 1-2:3 seems to proceed by a series of emanating stages similar in some ways to those described in the Timaeus, and this similarity does not escape Philo’s notice. But where the Platonic demiurge placed light in the sky for the purpose of marking time, Philo’s God lit the celestial spheres in order to attract man’s (sic) mind to the astronomical orbits, whereby it could begin to contemplate the invisible principles that governed them (Philo, On the Creation of the World 53-54).

We can see in Philo a subtle but important shift in emphasis from that of Plato. For Plato’s model is essentially humanistic, and has as its goal the merger of the human soul with the divine cosmic order. For Philo, on the other hand, this order is a Personal God, revealed in Scripture, who has organized the universe precisely for the benefit of philosophical contemplation. What is common to both is the notion of a universal harmony from which humanity is alienated and to which our souls long to return. This harmony is clearly demonstrated by the regularity of the celestial orbits, and so the hope is that, by contemplation of these orbits, the entire order will become manifest to the philosopher. But Philo contributes an important element to the general Platonic project: scriptural exegesis as a method of contemplation.

The Inner Space of Outer Space: Hermeneutical Astronomy in a Hieroglyphic Universe

It might be appropriate at this time to pause for a moment and consider what we have seen so far. Western scholarship, under the influence of Aristotle, the Scholastics, and recently the logical-positivists has tended to privilege rational noncontradiction in its approach to ontology. But for many people, a poem about reality is just as meaningful as a skeptic’s treatise. The Platonists must be understood on these terms. For the world that they attempted to map is the one that is prior to axiomatic distinctions and their consequences. The question at hand is: what can meaningfully be said about reality if we take no categorical distinctions as given? The role of dialectic and aporia in Plato’s writings points to an important intuition: that our beliefs must be rationally justified, but, no matter how rational they may be, they are always grounded in assumptions, and these assumptions must be exposed and challenged.

Astronomy has always figured prominently in the discourse on cosmology, precisely because the celestial lights are utterly beyond our tangible reach, and because their motions are relative to one another and to us. The regularity of their motions hints seductively that there must be a logical order governing them. Yet our interpretations of this order are always grounded in axioms that we can never confirm or disprove. Likewise, language appears to obey grammatical laws of some kind—be they natural or artificial—but in practice we discover that texts and speech utterances frequently contain ambiguities that must be interpreted according to starting assumptions.

Finally, visionary revelation also presents itself as a frustrating tension between the ambiguous and the ordered. Prophets and oracles excel at offering messages that, in retrospect, often appear to describe the events of our lives with uncanny accuracy—usually in poetical terms, but sometimes even literally. Yet divine messages are so utterly idiosyncratic that it seems impossible to describe them in terms of any kind of coherent and noncontroversial code. As Philo discovered, Scriptural exegesis is an even more taxing exercise in dialectical aporetics than is astronomy. Consequently, certain streams of Platonic thought in late antiquity began to drift ever more toward cult practice and obscure esoteric literature, as each generation became progessively more interested in hermeneutical problems, and less interested in natural science.

Contemporary with Platonic discourse was an evolving Egyptian cosmology. The Egyptian State comprised an enormous domain of competing cities and dynasties over a very long period, and the mythology reflects this. In general, the Egyptians tended to cluster their deities in groups of eight or nine, and these clusters often orbited a central god taken to be the Supreme Being: usually Ptah, Atum, or Ra. The same god could often simultaneously carry attributes that would be seen as entirely antithetical to modern readers, and this does not seem to have bothered the Egyptians, who as a whole tended to be very pragmatic about their cult practices, and relatively unconcerned with logical coherence in their mythology. Folk worship could be very different from place to place and class to class; pantheons were usually associated with various cities, and as classes and economic centres rose and fell, their various gods were differentiated, amalgamated, promoted, and sometimes completely eliminated. Claiming identity of one’s civic or familiar god with the Supreme God could be a powerful means of appropriating authority.

Complicating the matter further is the fact that most of the extant records of these myths are fragmentary, and are often recorded in ideographic hieroglyphs that are foreign to modern methods of reading. The entire project of academic Egyptology is itself an exercise in advanced hermeneutics; dating myths and placing them in geographical and political contexts is an enormous undertaking, and modern scholars have so far been able to produce only the most tentative reconstructions. In spite of these challenges to scholarship, the historical record plainly indicates that Neo-Platonic emanationist and enneadic cosmologies, usually attributed to the Alexandrian Plotinus, were rooted as deeply—if not more so—in Egyptian discourse as they were in Pythagoreanism and Plato4.

Hellenic and Roman imperial colonizations had interesting consequences for the evolution of both Platonism and Egyptian cult activity. On the one hand, within the context of the Egyptian discourse on power, it would be natural to assimilate indigenous pantheons with those of colonizing and immigrant foreigners. On the other hand, the rising importance of hermeneutical concerns in Platonic traditions must have been drawn to the complexity of Egyptian myth, which aggressively defied synthesizing frameworks. Furthermore, the intermingling of displaced mythic systems during the Empire would have produced hermeneutical challenges even for theologians interpreting their own textual heritage. Again, Platonic dialectic would have been a highly effective hermeneutical strategy, provided one’s community could accept syncretistic reinterpretations. Clearly, not every community did; and consequently we can observe the rise of heresiological debates from the 2nd century onward.

But there is another important and perhaps less obvious consequence of the integration of Platonism and Egyptian thought. Egyptian text was hieroglyphic, and considerably less linear than Greek. A single symbol could encode a wealth of literary and philosophical allusions, while simultaneously standing as a literal name for a concrete referent. Many of the hieroglyphs in common use were drawn from the immediate environment, and so the natural and cultural ecosystem was inscribed with meanings. A crocodile, for example, was no mere mammal, but a living and breathing sign indicating the god Sobek. Such a sign recalled the principle of disorder associated with the god Seth; on the other hand, its habit of basking in sunlight associated it with the powerful solar deity who—regardless of its name or mythic structure—was usually associated with the Supreme God (Wilkinson 104-105).

Cultures with highly developed ideographic or iconographic languages will engage symbol much differently than those whose textual codes are primarily alphabetic. First of all, wherever the hieroglyphs involve familiar objects, nature itself becomes a discourse which is open to interpretation by a reader. Secondly, ritual and cult practices such as pageantry and magical drama are deeply inscribed with meaning: performance itself becomes a speech act. Egypt at the time of late Hellenism was a highly visual and performative culture, and it was in this context that dialectical Platonic mysteries began to merge with ceremony.

Plotinus: Apotheosis by Reinscribing the World-Text

And so, we come to Plotinus, in whose work we can find direct confirmation of some of the foregoing speculations. Confirmation: because he actually says it.

The wise men of Egypt, I think, also understood this, either by scientific or innate knowledge, and when they wished to signify something wisely, did not use the forms of letters which follow the order of words and propositions and imitate sounds and the enunciations of philosophical statements, but by drawing images and inscribing in their temples one particular image of each particular thing, they manifested the non-discursiveness of the intelligible world, that is, that every image is a kind of knowledge and wisdom and is a subject of statements, all together in one, and not discourse or deliberation (Plotinus, “On the Intelligible Beauty,” Enneads V.8.6).

For Plotinus, the highest reality transcends propositional logic. In contemplating the world of the gods—i.e. a world of absolute knowledge—he writes that “one part would not come from another… but there each comes only from the whole and is part and whole at once…. This life is wisdom, wisdom not acquired by reasonings, because it was always all present” (ibid. V.8.4). We see in Plotinus a final collapse between the material and the ideal worlds. The “true wisdom… is a substance, and the true substance is wisdom…. One must not then suppose that the gods in the higher world contemplate propositions, but all the Forms we speak about are beautiful images… not painted but real” (ibid. V.8.5). The simultaneous togetherness of actual entities is an infinite unity that can never be expressed verbally because of the inherent particularity of words; images, however, can nearly approximate the real, and can be understood as a sort of “handing down” to the mundane world from the Ideal realm. Thus any serious discourse on universal totality must take the form of iconography.

To this end, Plotinus recommends a visualization:
Let us apprehend in our thought this visible universe, with each of its parts remaining what it is without confusion, gathering all of them together into one as far as we can…. Let there be, then, in the soul a shining imagination of a sphere, having everything within it…. Keep this, and apprehend in your mind another, taking away the mass: take away also the places, and the mental picture of matter in yourself… [and] calling on the god who made that of which you have the mental picture, pray him to come. And may he come, bringing his own universe with him, with all the gods within him… [for] they are different in their powers, but by that one manifold power they are all one (ibid. V.8.9).

It is images that hold our world together. What makes a tree (or likewise any other physical object) recognizable as such is the fact that it resembles our idea of what a tree ought to look like; and from a Platonic perspective, the degree to which an entity deviates from this ideal is precisely the degree to which it is unreal. But where is the image? In our minds? Yes, but equally or perhaps even more so in the world around us: the tree looks like a tree because it is a tree, and a tree is not a material body but a Form. We are swimming in a world of images, a reality in which the chaos of material nature has been made perfectly to conform to the order of ideas. What separates us from God, then, is simply our inability to hold the total order in our minds all at once. If we could do so, our minds would be indistinguishable from the mind of the One. It is therefore by means of visual and performative exercises that we can dissolve our substance and achieve final transcendence. Thus Neo-Platonism reached the end of discursive metaphysics, and could go no further unless it became an esoteric mystery.

Case Study: The Mithras Liturgy

In the corpus of late Hellenistic Egyptian spellbooks referred to as the Greek Magical Papyri, we find a diversity of texts ranging from curse spells to folk medicines. Among these texts are several lengthy instruction manuals for the proper performance of initiatory mystery rites. The so-called “Mithras Liturgy” offers an initiation into immortality, as revealed by the archangel of “the great god Helios Mithras” (PGM IV.481). Most of the ritual describes visionary experiences that the initiate can expect; in this sense it functions as a map of the visionary plane. The text does not make any explicit reference to Platonic or Neo-Platonic speculation; my purpose in introducing it here is not to affirm that the author was a Platonist. Rather, my point is that is that it could have been an outgrowth of Platonic thought, and that, given what we have already seen, such a ritual would be entirely coherent within the context of Neo-Platonic discourse.

The initiation requires an ointment and a potion, prepared in the following manner. For the ointment (ibid. IV.751-72), one must cause a sun scarab to fall into a turquoise cup “at the time when the moon is invisible”—presumably a new moon. The seed of the fruit pulp of the lotus is added, along with honey, and the mixture is ground together and made into a cake. Presumably, the scarab must survive this ordeal, for one is expected to see it eating the cake, whereupon it dies. The practitioner must then throw the beetle into a glass vessel containing rose oil, and, setting the vessel on a spread of sacred sand, must consecrate it with recitations every noon for the next seven days. The scarab is removed and given a dignified burial in a bean field, and a feast is held. Exposure to the scarab, symbolic of the Sun, charges the oil with solar power, as do the noon consecrations.

The potion (ibid. IV.778-91) is prepared from the juice of a mysterious plant called “kentritis,” which is picked during the “conjunction [of the sun and moon]” (translator’s gloss) in Leo—that is, during the peak of summer. The juice is mixed with myrrh and honey to make a paste, with which the initiate writes the divine name I EE OO IAI on a persea leaf (a symbol of Seshat, goddess of writing and consort of Thoth, god of magicians and scribes). After a three-day purification, the initiate licks the name off of the leaf while showing it to the rising Sun, and then places the rolled leaf into the rose-oil vessel. To initiate a second person, the oil is mixed with kentritis juice and spread on the person’s eyes.

Now, having made use of the ointment and potion in some manner that is not specified, the initiate first offers an invocation that begins “First origin of my origin… first beginning of my beginning… spirit of spirit” (ibid. IV.487-90) and includes typical vowel formulae as well as the popping and hissing sounds that are often associated with the cosmic crocodile Sobek. Next, the “first of the spirit in me,” followed by the first of the fire, of the water, and of the “earthy material” in the practitioner, and finally the initiate’s whole body is named, and a request is made for immortal birth, so that the initiate “may gaze upon the immortal” (ibid. IV. 490-505). The text is exceedingly difficult to follow, but it appears to suggest that the “origin of origin” invoked at the beginning is the initiate’s own deepest self. This notion is further supported by the claim that the initiate was born “from a mortal womb… but transformed by tremendous power” and apparently regards her/himself5 as either identical with or purified by the god Aion (ibid. IV.517-520). Perhaps the practitioner of the ritual has already been initiated into the rites of Aion; this is uncertain.

At any rate, we have here a compositional analysis of the self: Aion (or a similar deity) at the beginning, followed by spirit, fire, water, and earth, and finally the whole body. This is similar in some ways to the cosmogonic epistemology given in the spellbook called “Eighth Book of Moses” (PGM XIII.162-205), which also began with a primordial god—presumably Aion—who emanated a series of sounds, the last of which represented the totality of the others. In both cases we see a progressive emanation of the deity from the unknown to the fully manifest.

After declaring his/her nature and requesting immortality, the initiate addresses the “perishable nature of mortals” and asks to be received safely (ibid. IV.532). Next, the initiate is instructed to “draw in breath from the rays” (ibid. IV.537), and supposedly experiences a complete dissociation from the material world, coupled with a feeling of ascension and an ability to “see all immortal things” (ibid. IV.542-545). It is at this point that the visionary journey begins. It is clearly mapped, and proceeds according to the following stages:

    1. The initiate (NN) will see the gods rising and setting in heaven, as projected on the solar disk. The gods will rush angrily toward NN.


    1. NN must invoke silence, and make the hissing and popping sounds. This will pacify the gods, revealing a “clear and circling” world. This will be accompanied by a crash of thunder. NN must again invoke silence, and claim to be “a star… shining forth out of the deep” (ibid. IV.570-75).


    1. The solar disk will expand and fill the sky with five-pronged stars. NN must repeat the invocation to silence a third time. This opens the disk, revealing “the fireless circle, and the fiery doors shut tight” (ibid. IV.581-82).


    1. NN must close his/her eyes and offer a lengthy petition to a series of gods of fire, light, and thunder. This list of names may not be a pantheon of different gods but, rather, a number of names for the same being. The prayer to open the disk must be repeated seven times, one for each of the “immortal gods of the world” (ibid. IV.620).


    1. NN opens her/his eyes and sees the doors open to a divine world so profound as to induce a disorienting ecstasy. After this passes, the god Helios appears directly. NN offers salutations to Helios, calling him the “God of gods,” then asks to be announced to the supreme god who made him—viz. Helios—so that NN may worship Helios, and the creator of Helios may reveal himself to NN.


    1. Helios will walk to the celestial pole. NN must bellow and call for protection. Another door will open. Seven virgins with the faces of asps will emerge. NN must greet them by name. Seven young males with the faces of black bulls will emerge. NN must greet them by name. The fourteen deities will arrange themselves, and the earth will shake with thunder and lightning.


    1. A youthful god clad in white and gold will appear. He holds the shoulder of a bull and radiates stars and lightning. From the description, the god appears to be Mithras, although he is not explicitly named as such. The text explains that the bull’s shoulder is “the Bear which moves and turns heaven around” (ibid. IV.700-01)—presumably Ursa Minor, since this constellation includes Polaris, which is located roughly at the celestial pole.


  1. NN must hail the god and request a revelation. After receiving it, NN will grow faint and the god will depart. However, NN will not forget any part of the message.

In the visualization, astronomical markers are used as orientational references, and there is an explicit use of these objects as “landmarks” within a conceptual domain, rather than a material one. Note that the initiate loses touch with the material world altogether at the very beginning. S/he enters the visionary (and therefore mental) plane, where the solar disk functions as a sort of “palace” for Helios. Helios emerges from his home, and, in answer to the initiate’s request, crosses the sky to the celestial pole. This pole also functions as a palace, this time housing the court of Mithras(?). The implication is that Mithras is the unchanging truth around which all others revolve. As such, he is too great to be approached by a mere mortal, and therefore the initiate must petition Helios to intercede on her/his behalf.

Although there are no explicit references to Plato in the text, there are a few subtle allusions. The primordial god Aion clearly demonstrates the influence of Platonic Idealism, and may even be a personification of one of the Forms6. There are, however, even subtler references to the Republic. For example, the Liturgy explains that the initiate will be disoriented twice: first when the solar disk is opened, and then again on coming out of the trance. Yet the god’s message will be remembered. This has a parallel in the Cave Allegory at Republic 7.518a, where Socrates explains that there are two kinds of blindness that affect both the eyes and the mind: blindness produced when one comes into light out of darkness, and that caused by returning to darkness from the light. In this case, the memory of the message would be a reference to Plato’s theory of Recollection, which holds that philosophical awakening is the remembering of eternal Forms. Also in Republic, Plato has Socrates explain that “there are two ruling powers, and that one of them is set over the intellectual world, the other over the visible” (ibid. 6.509d), such that the visible power—viz. the Sun—was begotten by the transcendent intellectual power which Plato calls the Good. In the so-called “Mithras Liturgy,” the initiate invokes the Greek sun-god Helios, so that he may be presented to Helios’ creator, a higher god whose appearance matches descriptions of Mithras, but whose identity is never actually given, and could just as well be Plato’s Good. Indeed, the initiate’s petition to Helios explains that the initiation is “according to the wish of god the exceedingly good” (PGM IV.649).

Neo-Platonism and Later Esotericism as a Liberal Game of Language

Based on what we have seen so far, we can understand Platonic thought as evolving toward an interpretation of the world as a play of symbols, and an interpretation of philosophy as a game of analogies striving for maximal coherence and best approximation of a total cosmic order that ultimately transcends representation. Later esoteric cult practices and reading strategies in the West tended and continue to tend in this direction. Alchemical, Masonic and Kabbalistic worldviews have often been criticized for their suspicious hermeneutics—suspicious in two ways: (1) in that they suspect hidden meanings in the authoritative texts of the establishment, and (2) in that the worldviews they produce are suspected of charlatanism by the establishment.

But as we have seen, post-Platonic esotericism may not have been intended as an ontological science that “closes in” on a definite reality, but rather as a play of ontological models that “opens up” our fixed beliefs about reality. Texts that bear the appearance of affirmative metaphysical affirmations draw heavily on cult performance, intertextual allusions, analogical references, and vivid aesthetic imagery. These poetical elements play at least as important a role in the literature as do propositional arguments, and the apparent incoherence of these propositions is only problematic when the texts are read as literalist treatises rather than as products of artistic imagination. It would seem, then, that esoteric hermeneutics must be construed as an ongoing discourse exploring the application of novel artistic representations and novel theological models to the philosophical enterprise.

To be sure, esoteric thinkers have not always lived up to this ideal, and a great deal of esoteric literature does indeed seem to be an attempt to fix anti-authoritarian models as the exclusive “truth” about reality. When considered in a larger historical context, however, we see that such attempts can be understood as fallacies of misplaced concreteness that have fallen out of the larger esoteric project.

5. Asian Mystery

Esoteric thinking is not exclusive to the West, however, and indeed a great deal of the current popular appeal of Asian philosophy in the West is probably due to Westerners’ exoticist fantasies, which tend to portray the “mysterious Orient” as a hidden treasury of esoteric thinking. While it is true that such fantasies can easily obscure an accurate representation of cultural Others, it is also equally true that Asian societies have preserved a number of traditions that would be called “esoteric” by Western standards. In particular, the Tantric Buddhist lineages of Tibet and Japan can be shown to follow a worldview that in many ways is very similar to the post-Platonic mysticism that I have outlined here.

Transcendence, Immanence, and Multimedia Sacrament
According to Peter Struck, Greeks in the Classical period understood the word “symbol” primarily in the form of a verb meaning “to bring or set things together” and “to form contracts” (Struck 178). The Sanskrit noun for contractual “seal of approval” was “mudra,” and the importation of the Tantric tradition into East Asia preserved this meaning by translating “mudra” as “yin” in Chinese and in Japanese as “in,” both of which carry similar connotations (Saunders 48-51).
Where for the Greeks, symbol came to be associated in the mysteries and in divination with signs requiring interpretation (Struck 178), in Asian Tantra, mudra and its equivalents became intimately entangled with the notion of samaya. Snellgrove suggests that samaya means a “coming together” of “absolute being and phenomenal forms” and in this sense it implies a notion of sacrament (Snellgrove, Hevajra tantra, 138). Grotenhuis agrees that samaya means a “coming together, an agreement,” adding that it represents both a deity’s “Original Vow” and its methods of “startling beings into enlightenment,” and is equivalent to the deity’s “virtues” and its function of removing obstacles (Grotenhuis 45).

Samaya, then, denotes a sophisticated ontological category: those moments where the human and divine worlds “come together” by means of the symbol. The mudra is a contractual mark indicating the embodiment of divinity within the signifier of which it is the referent. The presence of such signs in the reader’s environment can be taken as indicative of the presence of the divine, just as red spots on the skin indicate the presence of measles, or the presence of artifacts indicates human habitation. At the same time, humans can “write” such signs in their iconography and in their behaviour, and thereby send messages to the divine. But divine immanence implies a different kind of communication from that between two mutually-distant subjectivities. Since divinity is embodied within the signifier, the human performance of mudras is simultaneously a human and divine speech act.

One of the most elegant Tantric expressions of the samayic unity of being and meaning can be found in the Hevajra Tantra. The text takes the form of a pedagogical dialogue between the deity Hevajra and his disciple Vajragarbha. The Sanskrit word “He” is an interjection of personal address, much like the English “hey!” or “O!” “Vajra” is multivalent and complex, defying a good English translation, and can variously be understood as “diamond;” “adamantine;” “thunderbolt;” and “divine royal scepter.” The term is intimately entangled in Vedic mythology but in Buddhist usage it generally carries connotations of supreme authority and absolute perfection. “Garbha” means “womb,” but carries additional metaphysical implications of embeddedness; in this sense it could well be translated by the English “matrix,” which also has etymological ties to motherhood. The words “hevajra” and “vajragarbha” can therefore be translated as something like, “O! Absolute!” and “absolute matrix” respectively. Furthermore, the vajra is a traditionally masculine symbol, used in Tantric Buddhist discourse to suggest both the male sex organ and the principle of power and insemination. The names of the guru and his disciple are therefore symbolic of the relations between the impregnator and the pregnant. Already we can see a similarity with the Platonic mystery tradition, for in Plato’s Symposium the priestess Diotima explains the love between a philosopher and his boy as a begetting and rearing of spiritual offspring (Symposium 207b-209e). The third primary character in the text is Hevajra’s consort Vajrayogini (“Absolute Female Practitioner of the Way of Divine Union”), who is also called Nairatmya (“Absence of the Notion of Selfhood” {Snellgrove, Hevajra tantra 24}.)

Furthermore, Hevajra is declared to be the “essence of Vajrasattva, Mahasattva, and Mahasamayasattva” (ibid. 47 I: i.3)7—that is, “Absolute Being, Great Being, and Great Togetherness Being,” respectively. Hevajra instructs Vajragarbha to “listen to this which is named Hevajra” (ibid. 47, I: i.2). Here, a clever pun is being made, since the text itself shares its name with its own primary character. Vajragarbha, then, must listen both to the teacher and to his instructions, which are identical, since the teacher is none other than the “essence” of Mahasamayasattva itself.

In this Tantra, the notion of mudrais symbolized by the yogin’s consort:


The Prajňā [“penetrating insight”] of sixteen years he clasps within his arms, and from the union of vajra and bell the Master’s consecration comes about…. Then with thumb and fourth finger he drops the bindu [“drop”] in the pupil’s mouth. In that very act the flavour of sameness should be placed within the pupil’s range. Then having honoured and worshipped the Prajňā, he should consign her to the pupil, saying: “O Great Being, take thou the Mudrā who will bring you bliss” (ibid. 96, II: iii.13-16).

The sexual imagery and ritual for which the Tantric tradition is famous ought always to be understood in the context of the samayic worldview. According to Hevajra,

the Innate is fourfold in the process of realization. The first Joy is the yogin, perfect Joy is the yoginī,extreme Joy is all-embracing unity, and by means of that bliss one is omniscient.


From Joy there is some bliss, from Perfect Joy yet more,
From the Joy of Cessation comes a passionless state.
The Joy of the Innate is finality.

The first comes by desire for contact, the second by desire for bliss, the third from the passing of passion, and by this means the fourth is realized. Perfect Joy may be called samsāra, and nirvāna the Joy of Cessation, with plain Joy as a middling state. But the Innate is free of all three; for there is found neither passion nor absence of passion, nor yet a middling state (ibid. 76, I: viii.30-35).

[T]he four Moments [are]: Variety, Development, Consummation, and Blank. It is called Variety, because it involves different things, the embrace, the kiss and so forth. Development is the reverse of this, for it is the experiencing of blissful knowledge. Consummation is defined as the reflection that this bliss has been experienced by oneself. Blank is quite other than these three, and knows neither passion nor the absence of passion. The first Joy is found in Variety, Perfect Joy in Development, the Joy of Cessation in Consummation and the Joy of the Innate in Blank.

These four Joys are to be experienced in due order in accordance with the list of the four consecrations, that of the Master, that of the Secret, that of the Prajňā and the Fourth. The first is represented by a smile, the second by a gaze, the third in an embrace, and the fourth in union. This fourfold set of consecrations is for the perfecting of living-beings (95-96, II: iii.6-12).

After explaining the Four Joys, Four Moments, Four Consecrations, and the ritual of sexual embrace, Hevajra declares:

This is the great knowledge that exists in all phenomenal forms, dual by nature and yet free of duality, the Lord whose essence is both existence and non-existence. He abides pervading all things, moving or motionless, for he manifests himself in these illusive forms (ibid. 97, II: iii.24-25).

What is revealed here is a progressive intensification of meaningfulness. The sexual ecstasy of the practitioner is merged with the ecstasy of his8 meditative states in a vivid demonstration of the nonduality principle. As the ecstasy intensifies, the meditator’s personal identity falls away and is dissolved in the intensity of the pure feeling of Being. But this is not mere intoxication. Rather, experience is interpreted within the context of the teachings and the intimacy of the mentor-protégé relationship. Libidinous bliss ceases to be mere pleasure and becomes a sign that expresses and manifests transcendental unity. Bliss, which can be reduced neither to mere bodily sensations nor to mere cognitive states, is an encountered event for the reader. The novel strangeness of its intensity impresses itself on the reader’s mind—foregrounding itself against the background horizon—and must be named. The Hevajra Tantra seeks to provide names for such experiences, and to accommodate them within a cosmological matrix.

In the Hevajra, mudra is primarily understood in its conjugal sense; the mudra is a moment of contact symbolized by the graphic sexual imagery of Hevajra’s embrace of Vajrayogini. But the concept has another sense as well—one which is perhaps more popular and is at any rate more familiar to Westerners. Mudra in this sense means “sacred gesture” involving the hands of practitioners and icons. In this sense, mudras constitute a sort of sign language by which various metaphysical and psychological principles are conveyed.

The mudra system functions in iconography as a kind of hieroglyphic writing. Each hand gesture signifies a particular principle or set of principles, and deities can be identified by the number of hands they possess and by the gestures these hands present. These hands can also hold various tools such as bells, lotuses, swords, and especially the vajra, a small, stylized scepter that designates the authority of absolute understanding. Each tool stands as an emblem representing a particular principle, and is usually associated with a particular deity or kula (“clan”) of deities, even when it is held by a deity considered to be outside of that kula.

One reads Tantric iconography in the way that one reads written script. In an alphabetic code, the letters, spaces and punctuation marks constitute the basic units of text. These are combined to form words which then constitute the basic units of meaning irreducible to the letters comprising these words. Finally, these words are arranged into sentences, which constitute the basic units of discourse. In the mudric code of Tantric iconography, gestures, postures, emblematic tools, colours, and directions constitute the basic units of text. They are assembled into conglomerations that may (as in the case of the Tibetan devotional images called “thangkas”) be anthropomorphic or theriocephalic, but are not necessarily so. In any case, these conglomerations are considered to be singular units signifying specific principles understood as divine beings. Finally, these conglomerations can be arranged in very complex geometrical cosmograms called “mandalas.” Mandalas are usually two-dimensional but are imagined as simplified reductions of three-dimensional palaces inhabited by the gods. Thus a very loose analogy would be to say that words are to sentences as mudras are to iconic deities, and sentences are to treatises as icons are to mandalas. The mandala is literally a city of meanings. In this vein, it is interesting to note that the most common alphabetic code for Sanskrit is called “devanagari”: a term that can be translated as either “language of the gods” or “city of the gods.” Sanskrit is the language in which many of the earliest Tantras were written, and the Tantric magical incantations called “mantras” are often written in devanagari script.

In English, the performative aspect of utterance is limited to speech and writing. In the complex semiotics of Tantra, performance can be expanded to include all the above iconographic elements, such as mudric gestures and the carrying of emblematic objects, while still engaging verbal discourse by the chanting of mantras. Of course, even the constructing of icons and mandalas is itself a performative utterance. But beyond this, Tantrists can, with their very bodies, imitate the icons they venerate. If we recall the importance of the samayic principle in Tantric discourse, it quickly becomes clear that, underlying all the ornate complexity of Tantric semiotics, there is a notion that the divine somehow inhabits semiosis itself. It would not, in fact, be too much of a stretch to suggest that, for Tantrists, meaning itself is equivalent to divinity, and individual meanings can be understood as particular deities. Human behaviour that closely imitates the iconography of a particular deity or kula of deities can be understood as embodying those deities, such that ideal practice leads the Tantrist to the dissolution of individual personhood and final apotheosis. One becomes the deity by perfectly representing it.

Universality, Relativity, and the Solar Cult of Omniscience

Of course, not all deities are equally worthy of emulation, and this is, in fact, the basic problem underlying all of Buddhist Tantric discourse. The various Tantras, mandalas, ritual instructions, and disciplinary lineages are all engaged in dialogue (and sometimes debate) over questions pertaining to the worthiness of deities and the best means of embodying them. While the goal of spiritual awakening is universal across all Buddhist discourses, the precise nature of awakening and the best means of achieving it have always been contested. Tantric literature must be understood as individual contributions participating in this larger discussion.

We find in the Vairocanābhisambodhi Tantra (also known as the Mahavairocana Sutra or Dainichikyō, hereafter referred to as V.A.T.) a series of ontological and authoritative assertions. The text relates a dialogue between the Buddha Vairocana (Skt. “Radiant One,” also called Mahavairocana, or “Great Radiant One”) and his pupil Vajrapāni (“Vajra Holder”—an epithet signifying power) Guhyakādhipati (“Master of the Secret Ones”—a reference to the yakshas, or nature-spirits {Wayman and Tajima 142, note 1}). The dialogue is set in the “vast Palace of the Vajra-Dharmadhātu [where] the Tathāgata creates his miraculous graces” (ibid. 253). “Tathāgata,” meaning, “Thus Gone One,” is a synonym for “Buddha,” or “Awakened One,” and “Dharmadhatu,” or “Domain of the Essence/Truth,” refers to the ontic domain—that is, to reality-as-such.

Thus the very first lines of the text establish its authority. Orzech traces the origins of Mahavairocana to Virocana, a Vedic deity cognate with the sun, moon, and fire (Orzech 5607), and Snellgrove explains that Vairocanaraśmipratimandita-vikurvanaraja (“Resplendent one, adorned with light-rays, transformation-king”) is the name of the ancient Lord of the world-system called “Well-Adorned” in the Śuramgamasamadhi Sutra, and is identified with Śakyamuni, the historical Buddha (Snellgrove, “Buddhas and bodhisattvas” 1077). The Buddha is here elevated to the status of a divine principle—specifically, to the principle of illumination. “[S]taying in the vast Palace of the Vajra-Dharmadhātu” means that the Radiant One illuminates the total reality-as-such, and the fact that Vajrapāni Guhyakādhipati is his pupil signifies that even the “Master of Mysteries” (Wayman and Tajima 254) is subject to the Buddha’s teaching. Ritual magic is here subordinated to the “miraculous graces” of the Buddha’s wisdom.

The V.A.T. explains how the Vairocana taught “all the wielders of Vajra…. the formula of the Equality of Body, Speech, and Mind, realized by the miraculous grace of the Tathāgata Sun, which is transcendent in relation to the three (modalities) of time” (ibid. 253). In response, Vajrapāni asks how the Vairocana “employ[s] (for each being) the appropriate language and adopt[s] varied attitudes” (ibid. 255). Vajrapāni declares that “the omniscient knowledge (of the Buddha)… is at the same time without particularization and not without particularization just as space is both without particularization and not without particularization” (ibid. 255). Vairocana replies, “How is it that Bodhi [i.e. enlightenment] is (endowed with) the character of space… [and] is neither knowable nor comprehensible…? The reason [is] that Bodhi lacks character, and that the dharmas [i.e. essences or substances] also lack character” (ibid. 256). Furthermore, “the Heart, the realm of space, and Bodhi… amount to one thing” (ibid. 257).

The text insists on an apophatic apprehension of the ultimate reality. Space is both “without… and not without particularization” because it is the underlying matrix in which reality is grounded. Space can be understood positively, as the extension between two ends of a continuum. Since each extension is uniquely relative to the specific distance and context it measures, it is, in this sense, “particular.” But space can also be understood negatively, as the absence of Being between entities. Absence has only one property: the absence of any properties other than its own properties. This special ontological character of absence means that it is a property essential to everything, since every substance possesses, as one of its properties, the absence of any properties other than its own. In simpler language, we can say that: every object is the absence of some other object; every location is the absence of some other location; and every event is the absence of some other event. Absence is universal and extension is particular. Since space comprises both absence and extension, it is both “without… and not without particularization.”

The “Heart” (or, in other words, the self) is subject to the same ontology when it is examined as an object. There is no aspect of the self that does not possess absence as one of its essential properties. Total self-knowledge—the goal of Buddhism—means the direct apprehension of that which is essential to all aspects of the self. Since orthodox Madhyamika Buddhism holds that there is, in fact, nothing that is essential to the self, it turns out that absence itself is the Heart-essence. In this way, the Heart is identical with space.

Finally, Bodhi, the “omniscient knowledge,” is knowledge of that which is universal. But, as we have already seen, nothing is universal, or, to put it another way, nothingness is that which is universal. There is literally nothing to be known by omniscience. Consequently, lack of knowledge appears to the uninitiated as mere ignorance. But to the Tantrist, it is identical with knowledge of lack: a positive inversion that actually renders omniscience possible. Bodhi, then, is the direct apprehension of the impossibility of such a thing as Bodhi. Thus: “Bodhi lacks character, and… the dharmas also lack character” and “the Heart, the realm of space, and Bodhi… amount to one thing” (ibid. 257).

Such ontological gymnastics would surely seem suspect to analytical logicians, and I freely confess that my explanation will require a more rigorous formalization. However, such arguments suffice to illustrate the way in which the ancient and early medieval Tantrists, in their attempts to discuss the absolute totality of Being, reasoned themselves past the material and formal worlds and into a domain of purely creative conventions.

The characterlessness of reality would seem to make ontology obsolete, and perhaps to destroy theology as well. To wit, what would be the point of any religious practice if everything were void anyway? This problem is taken up in the second chapter of the V.A.T. In a spectacular moment worthy of the greatest science fiction, Vairocana

equipoised himself in the samādhi [meditative state] called Mahākarunāgarbhodbhava [“Arising in the Womb of Great Compassion”]. No sooner had the Bhagavat equipoised, than from all his limbs there (emanated) the Tathāgata bodies that he had honored since his first Thought of Enlightenment…. When those (bodies) emerged they circled the ten directions; and returning, re-entered the spots of the Bhagavat’s body (ibid. 115).

Vairocana then begins to instruct Vajrapāni on the correct forms to which one must adhere when initiating a disciple into the rites of the Mahākarunāgarbhodbhava mandala. It is at this point that Vajrapāni, perhaps speaking on behalf of the reader, expresses confusion at the apparent paradox in the text. He says:

The Buddha is dissociated from signs; he abides in the Dharmakāya [“essence-body”; i.e. the collective principles of truth-as-such], resorting to the Dharma that is signless, unconstructed, and unequalled…. O great hero, for what purpose do you announce this praxis of mantras, a ritual associated with signs, which is not the rule of true nature?” (ibid. 117),

to which Vairocana replies,

The Dharma is free from (mundane) analysis, rejects all constructive thought, avoids the constructions of thought (citta) and mentals (caitta.)


My Dharma is fully enlightened. It arises from the sky.

Foolish beings, who range in wayward imagination, do not know it.

Persons obscured by darkness believe in time, spatial objects, and signs. So as to help them, this means is expressed.
Spatial object is not, time is not; there is neither deed nor agent. None of the natures (dharma) is real. The dharmas are ephemeral.
However, Master of the Secret ones, the beings of feeble intellect, deluded by activity-alone, crave concrete entities and in future time will be reborn.

Because ignorant of this kind of method they are attracted to the fruits of delusion by the virtuous and unvirtuous signs from spatial objects, time, and activity. So they may become great beings, this rite is expressed (ibid. 117-18).

In this way, the author of the V.A.T. is able to inscribe an apophatic ontology over the rites of mystery. One can participate in the ritual while simultaneously understanding that it is, in a sense, meaningless. Yet this is a special kind of meaninglessness. For it is not mere anomie; rather, it is a positive sign marking the ultimate truth of emptiness. As we have seen, for the Tantrists, the performance of communication is tantamount to consubstantiation with divinity. By performing the mandala ritual on behalf of a being whose essence is pure space, one is able to physically embody the principle of pure space. But of course, one always already is none other than pure space, so the practitioner of the ritual is merely embodying that which it already is. The performance is not an act of worship or magic, but rather a sort of self-deception that tricks the mind into directly apprehending a truth that it already understands intellectually. In this way, the complex metaphysics of Mahayana Buddhism is made to leap an epistemological gap, and move beyond mere theory to a lived experience that inhabits one’s total relationship with the world.

It is because all entities depend on one another for their existence that it is not meaningful to speak of beings as separate. Since Nagarjuna, it has been a generally accepted tenet in most streams of Mahayana Buddhism that particular entities are śunya—that is, “empty”—of existence; their apparent existence is an illusory misapprehension of the universal totality. In Chinese Hua-yen (“flower-garland”) Buddhism, the metaphysical emphasis is on the interdependence of entities rather than their individual emptiness; nevertheless, the two principles are always understood as different ways of describing the same principle. Francis Cook has argued convincingly that Vairocana functions, in Hua-yen, as a symbol of the interdependence of Being. He writes:

[I]t is precisely this emptiness, the face of Vairocana, hidden to empirical investigation, which is revealed in the Buddhist enlightenment…. It is the revelation of this emptiness as a “plus-quality” in things, elevating them above the brute materiality and facticity of mere things, and at the same time effecting a profound inner transformation in the individual, which we may recognize as the transcendental quality of the absolute (Cook, Jewel Net of Indra 105-6).

According to Cook, it is the “special mission” of Hua-yen to teach the view that “the universe is an eternally existing organism of interdependent parts” (Cook, “The Meaning of Vairocana” 414). Like Platonism, Buddhism argues that our experience of reality is suffocated by our attachment to inauthentic metaphysical concepts. And just as Plotinus discovered that a “true” understanding of Plato must necessarily dissolve the self and its objects into a world of pure Forms, so too did the Hua-yen school dissolve separate and solid entities (including the self) into a universal web of cognitively-beheld aspects. Vairocana functioned as a sort of signifier to indicate the universe-apprehended-as-totality.

Kukai took the theory further. Envisioning Vairocana not merely as a principle but rather as a living and infinitely enlightened Person, he held that the Radiant One is “mentally envisioning reality (the mandala), verbally intoning the sacred sounds (mantra), and physically enacting the sacred gestures (mudra)” (Kasulis 39). Consequently, the world we ordinarily experience is pregnant with secret and sacred meaning. Kukai distinguished between exoteric philosophical discourse—best represented by Hua-yen—whose goal is a coherent picture of reality pointing to the existence of Vairocana, and esoteric practices like Tantra and Shingon (“True Word”), the mystery school he founded. In Shingon theory, esoteric meanings are simply inaccessible to philosophical discourse, and can only be apprehended through the attainment of wisdom in the practice of ritual (ibid. 40).

In Tibetan Tantra, the emphasis is less linguistic and more shamanistic than it is in Japanese Shingon. Nevertheless the underlying idea is the same: the shocking encounter with universal totality is fundamentally disorienting and must therefore be organized into a coherent framework. This is nowhere more evident than in the Tibetan Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo (better—but inaccurately—known as the “Book of the Dead”), an early medieval text roughly contemporary to Kukai (both were 8th century CE).

The Tibetan notion of bardo is a complex and fascinating principle which we can only barely mention here. In short, it is understood as the “intermediate state” between familiar experiences: a disorienting gap of ecstasy that occurs as we pass out of one familiar setting and into another. Specifically, bardo usually refers to the disorienting transition between the soul’s incarnations—that is, to dying, death, and rebirth. According to the Great Liberation, the experience of dying is so overwhelming that most people are simply knocked unconscious for a few days, but are later reawakened in a confusing world of luminous hallucinations.

The text explains that the first hallucination one sees is the peaceful and beautiful Vairocana himself, but his luminosity is so dazzling that one will naturally tend to be terrified of it, and must resist the urge to flee. If the bardo-crosser fails to merge with Vairocana, each day another Buddha will emerge from one of the cardinal directions to present its enlightenment. Interestingly, after a week of failed attempts, the Buddhas will change their strategy. This time Vairocana and his female consort appear in horrific and demonic manifestations, “giving vent to sonorous utterances of ‘a-la-la’ and ‘ha-ha’, and piercing whistling sounds” (Evans-Wentz 137). The pair is described as entangled in a sexual embrace, bearing weapons, and blazing with the ferocious fire of enlightenment. Again the individual is presented the opportunity to surrender to the Radiant One, and if this does not occur, each of the directional buddhas will, in turn, present their ferocious emanations.

Contemplation of the Great Liberation is always done in the context of the mandala associated with the book. Vairocana and his consort and entourage take their place at the centre, and each of the other deities, with their entourage and wrathful manifestations, are arrayed around the central figure. In this way, the sum total of human experience, from bliss to sex to violence, is inscribed with a carefully-arranged Buddhist cosmology. The experience of disorientation is therefore presented as a simultaneous togetherness of all experience—that is what makes it disorienting—but if one is familiarized with a careful analysis of the parts, the entire experience of reality can be swallowed, as it were, “in a single gulp.” Confusion is no longer to be understood as confusion, but rather as unrecognized omniscience.

In this context, it is interesting to note that Buddhist teachings, and especially esoteric teachings, are usually categorized according a hierarchy of cycles called yanas (“vehicles”). Although the various schools of thought differ in their doctrines about the number and content of the yanas, it is generally agreed that treatises on rational ontologies are placed in the lowest yanas, while mysteries of sacramental sex and violence are placed in the most advanced. This would appear to reflect a general Buddhist intuition that contemplative philosophy advances from rational cosmological structures toward creative spontaneity.

6. Concluding Remarks

In the preceding pages, we have explored a number of challenging ideas and their possible intersections. We have seen, first, that many modern philosophers of science and epistemology agree that knowledge is incomplete when facts are left uninterpreted, and yet they also agree that these interpretations are inherently subject to bias and negotiation. Philosophical speculation enriches the pursuit of knowledge by diversifying interpretive frameworks while nevertheless evolving toward ever-more universal descriptions of reality. In this way, the rigorous academic pursuit of scientific unity is maintained, without falling into totalizing, monological dogma. We have also seen that theology, far from opposing science, actually coexists alongside of science. When academic diversity is maintained on both sides, science and religion can trade in ideas toward their mutual advantage. Esoteric hermeneutical strategies can easily appear as dangerous, crackpot heresies to both academics and religious believers, but this need not be a threat to either. Rather, such discourse nourishes science and religion by offering important critical interventions that challenge bias and diversify the categorial frameworks of each. So-called “Western,” Euro-American culture is largely unaware of the esoteric dimensions of Greek thought, and the ways in which later religious and magical activity—so often dismissed as primitive—is actually founded on philosophical methods that secular academics take as canonical.

Yet we ignore these ideas at our peril. Postmodern anxieties of fragmentation ought to take note of esoteric hermeneutics, since we too live in a post-colonial, multimedia world. If the destabilization of categorial frameworks is inherently nihilistic, then the contemporary academic project may be doomed. But if esotericism demonstrates the possibility of continuing in a direction of pluralizing instability while yet maintaining coherence, unity, and meaning, then the rigorous examination of esoteric discourse might provide important and relevant insights into liberal and liberating thought.

It is an unfortunate accident of history that, since at least the 13th century, academic thought in Western Europe and its later colonies has been overwhelmingly dominated by a bias against esoteric thought. Aristotelian Scholasticism attempted to purge scholarship of its Neo-Platonic tendencies, and Modernist thought from the Enlightenment onward finished the job by declaring such ideas, not merely heretical, but simply meaningless. My task in developing this paper was to defend ancient esotericism as a coherent philosophical (or at least rhetorical) discourse—not for apologetic purposes, but rather so as to clarify systems of ideas which have until now been seen as too intelligent to dismiss but too irrational to accept.

The exploratory nature of this research has inevitably resulted in a sort of “patchiness” to the theory. Furthermore, the ornate arcana of Egyptian and Tibetan lore does not easily lend itself to Western-style categorization. Reading the texts of these traditions can easily engender the sense that one is lost in a labyrinth of rhizomatic associations that, ultimately, do not lead anywhere. I apologize to my readers if this wandering confusion may at times have leaked into this paper. Future studies will have the task of better organizing the material, and the hierarchy of transcendence we have developed may serve as a heuristic for this purpose. Of course, it would be insufficient merely to place texts and practices within a categorial hierarchy; work must be done to show that this hierarchy reflects an implicit evolution assumed by the esotericists themselves.

During the 15-16th century transition from Scholastic to Enlightenment authority, esoteric magics enjoyed a brief tolerance, if not full acceptance, among the contemporary academic community. The application of the foregoing theory to research into Renaissance magic could prove especially fruitful. In particular, the letter-mysticism and midrashic hermeneutics developed in the early medieval Sefer Yetzirah and Bahir seems to have exerted a powerful influence over later Jewish and Rosicrucian Kabbalah. It remains to be seen whether these hermeneutical strategies can be fit into the framework we have been exploring here; however, preliminary investigation into these texts seems promising.

One important reason for conducting such research is that it can help give a voice to highly creative and intellectual communities who have long been caught in a cultural pendulum-swing alternating between marginalizing invisibility and outright persecution. Another is that—ironically—these thinkers often exerted a great deal of influence over the cultures in which they lived, and a proper understanding of our own cultural heritage requires that we understand them on their own terms, and not merely as they have been interpreted through centuries of sometimes-uncritical and often-polemical commentary.

But perhaps the most compelling reason why today’s scholars ought to investigate the history and hermeneutics of esoteric cosmology is that this history sheds light on our own biases. As we have seen, all discourse arises as an evolution out of earlier thought, and all discourse carries unconscious and implicit assumptions that precipitate from its history. Radical confrontation with novelty and the bizarre forces us to reconsider our normative standards, and call into question the justifications we use to buttress our own worldviews. Scholars of religion ought especially to consider these justifications, since we are in the business of developing tools of tolerance and appreciation for cultural and philosophical Others. Like any praxis, Religious Studies founds its methodologies on axiomatic frameworks, and it is to our advantage that we learn how to tell when these frameworks function as supports, and when they function as obstacles.



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1 I am using page numbers to indicate location in Snellgrove’s edition. To index locations in the text itself I will follow the traditional “Part: Chapter.Verse” demarcation.

2 The text is clearly intended for heterosexual male readers, and ignores the woman’s experience as a participant in the rites.

3 I have offered McKirahan’s page numbers for easy reference here. The fragments themselves are cited according to the standard Diels-Kranz catalogue.

4 All quotations from Philo are taken from Lewy’s anthology. His pagination is a bit awkward, since most of the book is simply a collage of extended quotations from Philo’s books. For the reader’s convenience, I have chosen to name each of these books here. The page numbers refer to Lewy’s anthology, not to Philo’s original texts.

5 See, for examples, Hymn 80 of the 13th century B.C.E. Leiden Hymns (Foster 63, 71), and “The Memphite Theology” (Lichtheim, Vol. I 51-57), transcribed ca. 710 B.C.E. but presumed to date back as far as the Old Kingdom (2665-2155 B.C.E.)

6 PGM IV.477-80 addresses the initiate as “daughter,” while in IV.645 the initiate refers to himself as a “man.” It appears that the spell is intended to be used by a man—the author himself—who is accompanied by a female apprentice. This would contradict the common assumption that Mithraic initiations were closed to females, or, alternately, might provide evidence of the subversive and anti-traditional approach to Mithraism that is being taken here.

7 Cf. LIBELLVS XI. (i): “A discourse of Mind to Hermes” in Scott 206-211. Here a five-fold emanation theory is given, which explicitly discusses the link between kosmos, time, and life. The text is clearly Platonic and probably a response to Timaeus. It describes God as the Good, “Aeon” as the sameness God created, and kosmos as the order that Aeon created.

8 I do not mean to disparage Wittgenstein here, nor to misrepresent him. I am well aware that his ideas about perception and interpretation are complex and still under heated debate. My suspicion, in fact, is that he would actually have agreed with Heidegger on many points, but unfortunately his analytical style tends to lend itself to skeptical readings.