Religions and Spirits
18 min

Snakes & Ladders

Originally appeared in Gnosis on October 1, 1994

The spiritual tension between immanence and transcendence

These days, when everything breaks down and comes together, spiritual explorers find themselves in a vast, tangled forest. Myths and metaphors, practices and words of wisdom, criss-crossing paths multiply in all directions. In many ways, this eclectic and fragmentary zone itself defines our moment of religious experience. Perhaps the question is less which path you find yourself on–what religious philosophy or spiritual technology you’re remaking yourself with–but on how you move through the space itself. How do you engage its polymorphous shapes, the density of its data, the absence of traditional clues? With rigid, one-pointed determination? Loose eclecticism? Craziness?

In my own tentative errancy, I’ve come to identify two contrasting modes of spiritual movement, two pervasive “styles” or religious impulses. One the one hand, the desire to establish an intense, deeply wedded connection with the imaginative matrix of the natural world; on the other hand, a desire to overcome desire, to ascend towards virtual light, to escape the demands of matter and wake up to a new order of knowledge and being.

The tension between these impulses takes many forms, replicating across many levels of scale: gnosis and nature, masculine and feminine, transcendence and immanence, evolution and eternal return, sky gods and chthonic spirits, monotheism and polytheism, unity and multiplicity, soul and body, spirit and soul. But though they certainly bleed into one another, and may “ultimately” meet, I distrust any easy attempt to shove them under one roof. It’s too simple to paper over their real differences be appealing to the supposed unity of mystical experience or the clichéd notion that various religious languages describe the same truth from different perspectives. What if the truth itself is multiple?

Nor can the dynamic tension between these modes simply be subsumed into a larger dialectic of spiritual progression. Such a view already aligns itself on the side of unity and hierarchy, imagining an abstract evolutionary drive towards ultimate oneness. As James Hillman writes, “the polytheistic alternative does not set up conflicting opposites between beast and Bethlehem, between chaos and unity; it permits the coexistence of the psychic fragments and gives them patterns in the imagination…”[1] Even the polarities of Gardnerian Wicca or tantra tend towards a moment of synthesis which stands apart from the profound multiplicity of nature. The shaman does not climb a ladder of binary oppositions towards a glowing monad. The jungle does not grow dialectically.

Today, a rising tide of environmentalists, Neopagans and aboriginal peoples from around the globe are calling on us, not to mitigate, but to reject the philosophical and spiritual paradigm of the West. They point out that monotheism’s mythic episteme, and its underlying dualisms of body/soul and man/nature, has helped produce devastating effects on the earth and the human spirit. Even mainstream Christianity and Judaism are now wrestling with a Green Goddess unleashed in their folds.

At the same time, science edges closer to realizing gnostic dreams of material transcendence–offworld space colonies, synthetic virtual realities and the preservation of human consciousness in the deathless body of machines. Are such technologies symptoms of a deeply spiritual intuition, or of an arrogant and deadly rift with nature made long ago? Yet those who reject humanity’s drive towards virtual light and attempt to embrace the ancient fertility gods and their collective web of life face another problem–do the angels of light become the new enemies? For despite the validity of most eco-spiritual critiques, they often drift into a simplified attack on Christianity or asceticism. I’d like to suggest that the impulse to transcend–the Neoplatonist’s ascent through the spheres, the gnostic’s sudden awakening, the desert monk’s rejection of the élan vital is not simply a philosophical error or the mark of patriarchy, but is fired by an intensely lucid yearning for the highest of goals: liberation.

Wrestling with my own internal tension between these impulses led me to give two lectures at the New York Open Center, and what follows is culled from those talks. I want to stress that I am not attempting a rigorous historical argument, or attempting to do justice to the myriad subtleties of spiritual traditions. In some sense, I’ve written an intellectual myth that over-emphasizes the conflict between these modes in order to highlight their intrinsic distinctions. If I pitched my discussion at a dangerous level of generality, it was because I feel a certain urgency to cut through to the raw and frequently conflicting desires that brought many of us to the history and practice of spirituality in the first place.

Within societies, religions and individuals, these modes are clearly deeply imbricated, and even seem to call forth each other. The Neoplatonism I criticize for its over-determined reliance on hierarchy nonetheless served to keep the gods and the ensouled earth alive during the Renaissance. And while gnosticism expresses a desire to transcend the material world far more intensely that normative Christianity, my favorite image for Nature — the Ouroboros — is in fact a gnostic symbol. Perhaps spirituality can synthesize what religion drives asunder.

Snakes and Ladders

My favorite analogy for my own somewhat schizophrenic spiritual explorations is the kid’s game Snakes and Ladders (known more antiseptically as Chutes and Ladders). In the game, you begin at the bottom row of the board and advance towards the top row. If you land on a square that contains the bottom rung of a ladder you can climb straight up, skipping rows. If you land on a square that has the upper end of a snake on it you have to slide back down.

Of course, “getting to the end” is already a component of the linear and transcendent drive towards a goal, and the game is in the ladder’s camp from the get-go. The ladder is a human artifact, a tool defined by the right angles which we discover in their “pure” Platonic form in our minds rather than the sinewy forms of nature. The ladder describes a linear vector, and embodies a hierarchy of rungs. As with a pyramid, the “higher” heavenly powers rule over the lower powers of the earth. Laid on its side, the ladder describes an evolutionary movement through time, both the “great chain of being” that places man as the leader of the pack, and the millennial historical movement of towards a teleological end that exceeds the order of nature.

But the serpent slips in and upsets all this order. The snake is an endless curve, a living beast that hugs the horizontal earth or coils into the Ouroboros, the primary image of cycles and return. The snake doesn’t stepit flows, and never in a straight line. It’s wet tongue whispers of Pagan mysteries, of chthonic and sexual powers, of the immanence of embodied spiritual experience. In one common Central American Christian icon, a snake coils at the base of a ladder set beside the crucified Christ. The snake is the “base”the deepest instinctive life-force, the beginning, the original sin. Hindu yogis make their bodies into pyramids and force the creature coiled at the base of their spines up the ladder of their chakras. But others let the serpent lead them, through confusion and resplendent darkness, deep into the cool crevices of earth.

Nature vs. Gnosis

You are an archaic nomad. You are deeply, inextricably embedded in the Gaian matrix, of natural rhythms, flows and forces. There’s not even any space to think of yourself as separate from it. The earth runs through you, through your food and your shit and the weather and the things you eat and your relationships with other bodies. There’s not even any space you could inhabit that would let you think you were separate from this matrix, no inner temple, no clear and distinct Cartesian camera, no immortal soul. You live in a world without settlements, and where there are no settlements there are no walls.

The earth is alive, imbued with a consciousness distributed through animals and plants and rocks and storms. Your imagination creates an interface between your awareness and these external entities, a “mythological” interface that puts you into various relationships with these figures. You form alliances with animal spirits, who are both meaningful icons and actual creatures. You align yourself with Cougar and partake of courage and mystery; you become Coyote and take on craftiness. At a particularly pregnant moment of time, an actual coyote passes in front of you and becomes an omen. Nature gives you a sign, not of an abstract law but a moving message written on the wind.

In my myth, agriculture and the subsequent development of the urban state changes all this. The walls go up. Monotheism appears, perhaps partly as a metaphysical resonance of the vertical organization of state-craft (the pinnacle of the pharaoh’s pyramid), and partly as an inevitable expression of the synthetic, relational capabilities of the human mind. The virus of written text spreads, creating a space for the intensification of rational and increasingly abstract thought apart from the living sensual semiotics of nature. This space pulls us inside and up, towards an increasingly interior and immaterial sense of the nature and locus of truth — the Logos. The body and matter correspondingly suffer as spiritual principles, imperfect copies of abstract truths.

There are a number of reasons why I privilege gnosticism — in its general sense — as the paradigmatic spiritual expression of the transcendent drive of religions during this fertile period of antiquity. For one, gnosticism offers a continuity rather than a rejection of the intense spiritual experience found within urban pagan and archaic shamanic traditions. Its abstractions are not merely intellectual, but (seemingly) a lived spirituality.

Also, for all its alienness, gnosticism also grows out of a relationship with textuality that is particularly modern and “existential” in sensibility, and in many ways more mythically appealing than the legalism of the major “religions of the book”. As Ioan Couliano and Harold Bloom have noted, gnosticism in part derives from Neoplatonists reading Genesis critically — that is, reading the Yahweh as a deluded Demiurge rather than the true God.[2] Gnosticism thus unifies the Christian rhetoric of freedom with the Neoplatonic Greek thought that comes to dominate Western esotericism and philosophy.

But unlike Neoplatonic philosophies such as Plotinus’, gnosticism presents an extremely critical outlook on nature and the body. For my purposes, it casts antiquity’s overall religious drift away from embodied experience into extreme relief. While this world-denying trend will come to characterize normative Christianity to some degree, especially after the ex-Manichean Augustine leaves his mark on it, the intensity of gnosticism’s desire to break through this world is unparalleled.

This basic gnostic myth is that the creator described in Genesis is not the true god, but an inferior Demiurge. The Demiurge has many sort of ministers, or archons, and together they are responsible for this miserable world. Though imprisoned in this “abortion of matter,” humanity carries within itself the leftover sparks of the precosmic “pleroma” that existed before the Demiurge and his creation. Human beings are thus totally superior to the ecosystem — not stewards, but strangers in a strange land. Our body and the soul (“psyche”) cloak this spiritual “spark” and must be rent for us to rediscover our true being. Betraying its somewhat intellectual cast, the primary trope of gnosticism is not sin and redemption, but ignorance and gnosis, forgetting and memory. We don’t need to expiate our crimes, but to discover/remember the way out of a false world created through no fault of our own. And this way out is way out — gnostic texts crackle with a profoundly cosmic energy, an almost science-fiction sensibility of “alien gods” and supramundane universes of light. The gnostics were the first off-worlders.

From the existential perspective of a rural pagan, such tales must have seen quite revolutionary. For nature-worshippers ritually blend with the rhythms and forms of nature, and embrace the deep groove of the seasons and to draw spiritual sustenance from change. The epitome of this is the fertility rite. Of course, rituals attempt to control nature as well as honor it, but the aim is to catch the élan vital, the bursting surge of spring. The gnostic denies that spirit. It is a trap, and he works against it. In what is both a brilliant critical sublimation and a profoundly unbalanced internal split, the gnostic goes against the grain. The gnostics were spiritual Prometheans, struggling with the gods of this world. And like the alchemists they later inspired, they performed an opus contra naturam.

Fate vs. Freedom

As an archaic nature-worshipper, you are compelled to honor the powerful spirits that animate the environment that surrounds and in a sense defines you. The nature spirits you develop alliances with determine the mysteries you seek out, your sense of your places in the cosmos and you role in society. Frequently, through omen or dream, these entities claim you. You have little choice in the matter.

In some sense, astrology is civilization’s analog to these necessary polytheistic relationships. Reflecting the general drift away from the immediate world of sensuous forms towards the heights of abstraction, the gods ascend and take up residence among geometric constellations and astronomical grids. The Ouroboros slithers into the Zodiac, recreating on a cosmic scale the polytheistic zone that surrounds humanity and determines the life of the individual. You’re born into a certain cosmic arrangement, and the planets that rule that particular constellation of forces determine to a great degree your personality, your role in society and the shape of your life. And we must remember that these heavenly bodies weren’t chunks of rock, but living gods. If Saturn rules over your, to some degree, you are his slave.

But then the gnostics appear with their anti-astrological rants. Most of them identified the archons of the Demiurge with the star-demons of the Zodiac. The wheel of the heavens is a great prison controlled by the lower powers. But there is a secret way out: gnosis, which is both the experience of gnosis and the mythological information about the structure of reality. You can escape the clutches of the archons and their sinister spheres upon death, or learn how to manipulate them through magic. The star-demons no longer have total control.

Within a heavily astrological climate, this is a powerfully libertarian notion, one which Christianity to a degree shared (besides breaking the bonds of the pagan gods, Jesus was said to replace the law which dominated the Pentateuch with the new dispensation of forgiveness and grace). Embedded within gnosticism’s almost maniacal hostility to the ecosystem is a beautiful and compelling cry for freedom, a libertarian drive towards unmediated lucidity and intuitive knowledge. Gnosticism were antinomian — against the law. The gnostic distrust of the world was not simply asceticism, nor simply a form of ressentiment (Nietzsche’s criticism of Christian slave morality), but a particularly intense form of resistance to the powers that bind — in the self, in the body, in politics.

By imagining the world as a trap, gnosticism creates a space to step back and critique the dominant situation, to find the cracks in the apparent surface of reality. It’s as if you’re walking around a beautiful garden and suddenly you notice that there are surveillance devices hidden in the flowers and that the blue sky is actually a glass bubble. That visionary criticism, that drive to break the bubble, characterizes many of the great spiritual figures of the last few centuries, from Blake to Gurdjieff. The distrust of nature and the body grows from the distrust of the existing body of perception. The gnostic wakes up rather than deepen the dream.

The Corporation of Heaven and the Carnival of Earth

Once, during a weekend course on the Kabbalah, the teacher led the class through a guided meditation of holy Jerusalem. As we moved through the city, he was symbolically moving us up through the sephirot on the Tree of Life, one of the most powerful “ladders” of esoteric thought and experience. We began outside the walls of the city, with the trees and shepherds-the “simple people.” Climbing through the city, we eventually passed through the area which corresponded to Geburah, which housed the soldiers who protected the city.

Immediately, my active imagination coughed up images of Israeli troops shooting Palestinian kids armed with nothing but rocks, kids fighting for land they have at least much a claim to as the Jews. I could no longer travel through this “ideal” Jerusalem, because I realized that the desire to literalize that very ideal inspires the intolerance of many reactionary and fundamentalist Israelis. The sparkling city was splattered with the mud of history.

Most Kabbalists are too sophisticated to confuse the literal relative world and the logic of the spiritual imagination, and many recognize the need to embrace Malkuth as thoroughly as Ketherin fact, the Jewish tradition has a particularly good record regarding sexuality and the body. But nonetheless, the language that issues from the ineffable flux of mystical experience — symbols, myths, metaphysics — becomes part and parcel of the relative world. Like any other language, spiritual language leaks and drifts. As it becomes part of history, it becomes ideology, often with very specific social and political results — the Christian belief that man is master of the earth has helped put a torch to the earth. And as political ideologies, spiritual hierarchies are particularly pernicious.

Such hierarchies begin with the idea that reality originates from a supreme monad. The problem then is how to relate the godhead with our lived world of multiplicity and change. Instead of an immanent or pantheistic metaphysics, in which that intense unity is folded immediately into the world, spiritual hierarchies like the Tree of Life work on the cosmogenic principle of emanation. The godhead emanates increasingly “coarser” gradations of reality, which forms a descending ladder of lower and lower planes. It’s the spiritual equivalent of the trickle-down economics. The coarsest plane is the natural earth, and the task of the aspirant is to arduously climb back up the ladder. The principle of immanence — the Kabbalist’s Shekinah, the Christian’s Logos, the Gnostic’s Sophia — is always subservient to the supreme principle.

One of the primary architects of the metaphysical ladder was the Christian mystic Pseudo-Dionysus. In works like The Celestial Hierarchy and The Divine Names, he helped fix the familiar Neoplatonic cosmological model that consists of a series of spheres which surround the earth like an onion skin. Once fully developed, this hermetic model set God up as the supreme lord, whose work was performed by various ministering angels in descending degrees of power: thrones, dominions, principalities, etc. Below the angels lay the astrological powers, and below them the elemental forces of nature.

As mystical technologies, the Kabbalah and the Neoplatonic spheres of angel magic are profound and powerful. But if you hold that the hermetic axiom of “as above, so below” applies to political structures, then these maps could easily be seen as depicting a highly ordered and authoritarian political structure that invests absolute power in a supreme sovereign — which is indeed how royalty fit itself into the divine scheme. Lesser beings must take their assigned place in the social hierarchy, and the elementals of nature are reduced to slaves or even demons. It’s a political model only the most reactionary among us could stomach — though such reactionaries do make up a sizable core of European esotericism.

But what happens when parliamentary and democratic forms displace the divine rule of kings? Heaven becomes a corporation. Reading through occult literature from the 19th century until today, one finds again and again the analogy of the spirit world as a business, with God the president and various angels and astral souls his employees. As we reincarnate, we work our way up the corporate ladder. Besides maintaining a top-down power structure, now shifted from kingship to capitalism, this transposition keeps earth low beneath our feet, a degraded realm with no voice.

Then the Neopagan comes along, with her self-conscious critique of this vast metaphysical architecture. I hate corporations, she says. I hate working for the man. Spirituality is not a business, and my allegiance is to the “lowest” rung: earth. I do not want to lord over nature, but immerse myself in its tides and rhythms, form alliances with its elemental powers rather than enslave them. I look forward to physical reincarnation–I have no desire to leave the Wheel. What others see as a trap, I embrace as a mysterious celebration that knits beauty and love with suffering and death. I acknowledge my own Promethean urges, but I recognize that Prometheus is only one of many gods with claims on my being.

Instead of a static, top-down corporation, the Neopagan concocts a horizontal zone of becoming: a carnival, a loose gathering in a field. The carnival swirls with energy and chaotic erotic connections. Someone is having a ritual over here and someone is selling stuff over there and back there people are making love. Through the dust, faces emerge and disappear, some wearing animals masks. People become beasts while the gods become human. There are no devils, just tricksters and their traps.

Of course, the carnival creates hierarchies, but they are nested hierarchies, folded within the fractal properties of the field itself. Inner circles form and compete with other inner circles, wizard wars with witch. But the flavor has changed — rather than fixed forms, these dynamic relationships are self-emergent properties. The center is always decentered. As a sincerely polytheistic space, the carnival fragments and distributes the power that the ladder concentrated into one supreme point. Nature speaks again, in a thousand networked tongues.

Most of all, there is no desire to leave the field. The carnival embodies immanence, the spiritual intensity of multiplicity. There is nowhere to go. The chilly peaks in the background do not beckon to solitary climbers and their urge to transcend the fray. James Hillman uses precisely the image of “peaks and vales” to distinguish between the drive towards spiritual transcendence (peak experience, detachment, unity) and the rich fragmentary and animistic world of the soul and the polytheistic imagination.[3] As one Druid I know put it, “people are always saying how all paths lead to the same mountain top. But why climb the mountain in the first place, when you can explore the valleys?” That’s the snake whispering.

Buddhas and Cucumbers

Rather than reject the gnostic impulse out of hand, I’d like to examine a complex, tentative rapprochement with nature that seems to have existed within elements of the most historically robust gnostic movement: Manichaeism. Lasting for over a millennium and spreading at one time from North Africa to China, Manichaeism deserves to be ranked as a world religion. Manicheans were radical dualists, adapting the Zoroastrian notion of two co-eternal principles: light and darkness, good and evil, spirit and hyle (matter). These forces fought a series of primal battles, during which the evil archons swallowed some the Light and imprisoned it in matter. Unlike most gnostics, the Manicheans believed the supreme light was not restricted to the human spirit, but was scattered and circulated throughout plants, animals and minerals. Thoroughly intermixed, nature itself awaits redemption.

Two central Manichean figures for this redemption are the sun and the moon, the “ships of light” that the Manicheans worshipped. As the moon waxed, the Manicheans imagined the orb drawing up particles of light from the earth, which it would then transfer to the sun as it waned. The sun then returned this divine substance to the Kingdom of Light (perhaps this is the origin of Gurdjieff’s notion that we are food for the moon). So while the Manicheans shared with other gnostics a hatred of astrological fate and its sinister spheres (the planets and the constellations remains evil archons), they nonetheless imagined a counterforce inscribed within nature, a cosmic purification-machine embodied in the two primary heavenly bodies.

In his The Gnostic Religion, Hans Jonas highlights the Manicheans’ dreary pessimism, which for him was exemplified in their idea that the world was built from the demonic corpses of the archons. But as Ioan Couliano points out, this judgment is hasty. He points out that though the substance of the earth is demonic, it is crafted by a being of light — the Living Spirit. Besides, “the theory of the double nature of humanity and cosmos can lead to various attitudes, including the perfectly optimistic one according to which the world reveals itself every day as an epiphany of the Kingdom of Light.”[4] From the eye of gnosis, perhaps the whole of nature shimmers with cosmic lucidity.

An even more nuanced picture emerges if we examine the world of Manichean ethics. The Manichean community was divided between the Elect and the Hearers, or lay community. On the surface, the Elect sound like monkish hippies — they didn’t accumulate wealth, didn’t work much, abhorred violence, believed in reincarnation, and prayed to the sun and moon. They were not only vegetarians, but vegans, and believed that by consuming foods filled with light — like cucumbers and melons — they were freeing its imprisoned light. The Elect followed strict chastity, but Augustine reported that they consumed semen (apparently filled with light) as their Eucharist, which needless to say complicates the picture. In any case, it seems the Manicheans ultimately objected less to pleasure than to procreation, which delivers more souls into bondage. Turning the later Christian moral scheme on its head, the Hearers were encouraged to avoid conception, not copulation.

Of course, most hippies would find the dualistic, world-denying vision these ascetic practices rested upon highly objectionable. But is Couliano right? Was there a quietist optimism in the Manichean relationship with the natural world? We find something like that in St. Augustine’s snide descriptions of his former brothers in faith: “They believe that the herbs and the trees are alive, and the life that is in them is endowed with sensibility and able to suffer when hurt. This is why no-one can sever or pluck anything without inflicting suffering upon it.”[5] In his book on Augustine, Prosper Alfaric further elaborates on this natural ethics:

Before passing over into plants and trees, the divine substance abducted by the demons lies all over the ground. It is also spread in the air and even in the depth of the earth. Even stones have the faculty for feeling and thinking. Thus a perfect Manichean would try to live at peace with the whole of Nature. He knows that everything in it leads to the triumph of the good. Therefore he will refrain from upsetting its harmony; will not plow, for he could not do with torturing God’s limbs.[6]

If we read this passage not as an indication of the Manichean’s underlying cosmology but as an immediate outlook on the natural world, we sense a deep respect for the webwork of life rather than the loathing and contempt for matter one might suspect.

This almost fanatical sensitivity to sentient life in all its forms reminds us less of Christians berating the sins of the flesh than the Jains, who so fear harming life that the most extreme among them cover their mouths with cloth so they do not inhale insects. In contrast with normative Christianity, which sets man up as the only ensouled ruler of creation and which demonized the spirits of nature, Manichaeism bring a strong flavor of “Eastern” asceticism to their dualism. For the Manichean, the light is scattered everywhere, and thus the essence of nature, of goats and melons and mountains, is cosubstantial with our own. Even the mud is complex, base matter flecked with gold.

Even more than Jainism, Buddhism resonates with Manichaeism, not only in its ascetic ethics but its emphasis on lucid knowledge. For the Buddhist, as for the Manichean, we are locked into a life of suffering. Desire, the passionate élan vital that courses through living beings, is the productive force that binds us to suffering. Since desire is ultimately founded, not upon sin, but upon ignorance, release from bondage — and the endless cycle of reincarnation — occurs through a kind of gnosis, a total lucid understanding of the nature of reality. Though Manichaeism’s belief in an eternal soul marks one of many radical points of divergence, both systems privilege lucid knowledge and direct perception over devotion and belief. Yet for both Manicheans and Mahayana Buddhists, this transcendent overcoming of the world is balanced with a practical commitment to free the “light” scattered throughout the body of nature, a global soteriology founded on balance and nonaggression.

Though direct historical influences are difficult to prove, religious historians have long sensed a tangled relationship between Manichaeism and Mahayana Buddhism. Mani himself included the Buddha as one of his precursors, and imagined himself as the future Buddha Maitreya. His first missionary jaunt was to northwest India, where he converted the Buddhist king of Turan. Jonas points out that if Mani cribbed much of his cosmology from Iranian religion, he borrowed his ethical and ascetic ideals from Buddhism, as the monastic structures that surrounded the Elect resemble Buddhist monasticism far more than Christian religious communities.

In Gnosis on the Silk Road, which compiles fragments of Central Asian Manichaeism, Hans-Joachim Klimkeit proposes that as Manichaeism moved east, its classical pessimism “gave way to a more composed, tranquil, and cheerful attitude, such as we often find in Mahayana Buddhism.”[7] Running the other direction, some scholars have found distinct Manichean elements in Tibetan cosmology, while Klimkeit suggests that Mahayana texts concerning the “Western Paradise” of the Buddha Amitabha (the Buddha of Light central to the devotional Pure Land school) may be direct outgrowths of Manichean myths of the Kingdom of Light. In the East, Mani himself was known as the “Buddha of Light.”

The differences between Manichaeism and Buddhism clearly outweigh the similarities, but there remains a fundamental resonance between them (in Awakening of the West, Stephen Batchelor points out that Basilides’s gnostic system has even more doctrinal similarities to Buddhism than Mani’s). Why is this resonance important here? Because while sharing gnosticism’s drive towards liberating knowledge and self-overcoming, Mahayana Buddhism (particularly in its Chinese and Japanese forms) tempers this transcendent impulse with a gentle respect and accepting relationship with nature rarely found in the gnostic, Neoplatonic and Christian currents of the West. In creating a middle way between the intense world-denying asceticism of Hindu mendicants and an immanent embrace of nature and the relative world, Buddhism presents a sort of radial escape from the pagan/monotheistic dualism that haunts the West’s mystical tradition. Perhaps we can see Buddhism as a parallel world or an alternate history of gnosis, one which views the prison of existence as arising, not from the material conditions imposed on us from without, but from the reified structures of ignorance built up from within. As such, the arrow of its liberation curves more than it ascends.

Perhaps liberation begins with dissolving the idea that there is any essence to be liberated. Such a view would not annul the tension between snakes and ladders, but would instead acknowledge their incommensurable nature: they speak to and from different aspects of an entity that is no longer an “individual soul” but a complex multiplicity of forces, habits and voices. Such a view suggests a mutation of the Western spirit, one in which we cease to “follow a path” up the mountain and begin to travel through a fractal field of contradictory and constantly shifting possibilities and practices. From each step we take, a thousand paths emerge, rippling through a vast open-ended network. We pray, and the Egyptian beast-gods crash through the sacristy and build a Zen rock garden. We meditate, and the dissolving fragments of the ego coagulate into an incandescent angel. We move like magicians through the mossy forest of symbols, without culmination or rest, evolving and returning simultaneously. Worlds without end, proliferating in the arms of earth: this matrix of chaos and serenity.


[1]James Hillman, A Blue Fire (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 44.

[2] Ioan Couliano, The Tree of Gnosis (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p, 119, ff.

[3] Hillman, p. 114.

[4] Couliano, p. 176.

[5] Ibid, p. 178.

[6] Ibid, p. 179.

[7]Hans-Joachim Klimkeit, Gnosis on the Silk Road (HarperCollins, 1993), p.22.