A Treasury of Mystic Terms, Part II
By John Davidson
Publisher: Delhi: Science of the Soul Research Centre, 2016.
A Treasury of Mystic Terms is an on-going multivolume exploration into the spiritual beliefs and literature of the major world religions and native traditions. Its purpose is to demonstrate through that literature the common thread of spirituality that has been manifest in humanity since the beginning of time.
Part I of A Treasury of Mystic Terms, published in six volumes in 2003, is centred on the universal principles of spirituality – the nature of God, the creative process, the hierarchy of powers in the inner realms, birth and death, the theory of karma, reincarnation, and the like. Part II of the Treasury has now been published in four volumes, focusing on the nature and importance of the spiritual guide or master, including such topics as the master-disciple relationship, descriptions of the disciple’s contact with the inner guide or beloved, the pattern of succession of one master to another, and spiritual or miraculous powers attributed to advanced souls. As with Part I of the Treasury, the entries for these subjects have been drawn from the various spiritual traditions and offer numerous quotations across the immense breadth of the world’s spiritual literature.
All terms are explained in a simple manner, with each term presented as a separate entry. Cross-references to other terms broaden the reader’s scope. With the explanations grouped according to subject, and placed alongside one another, many similarities between different religions become apparent. The author offers a broad mixture of concepts, doctrines, beliefs, theories, parables, teaching stories, and myths, all taken, usually with quotations, from ancient and modern scriptures and spiritual writings and commentaries.
The following are examples of some terms covered and of the wealth of material brought to bear in covering each of them.
The concept of the “messiah” or “anointed one” appears in Judaism, Christianity, and other religious traditions. The author cites numerous quotations which illuminate how the view of the messiah evolved over time. We learn that the term originated with the ritual of anointing a chosen king, prophet, or priest in early Judaic times, and later became used in Judaism and Christianity for a supernatural being who can save people through the holy spirit. A lovely legend from the Jewish Talmud, written between the second and sixth century CE, illustrates the belief that the messiah will always be available to humanity, if we are receptive. The story relates that one of the Talmud’s rabbinic authors met the prophet Elijah near the tomb of the second-century holy man, Simeon ben Yoḥai, in the mystical centre of Safed (Tsfat). He asked the prophet: “When will the messiah come?” Elijah responded, “Go and ask him!” After inquiring of the prophet where he could find him, he was told, “at the gateway of the city.” “And how will I know him?” “He is seated among the poor, who are suffering and sick.” So the rabbi went to the messiah, greeted him, and asked when he would come to bring salvation. The messiah replied, “Today.” So the rabbi was distressed, feeling the messiah had lied, as he had not appeared. He returned to Elijah and complained, and Elijah responded: “What he said to you was, ‘Today, if you will hear his voice.’”
Another interesting term, common to Islamic and Jewish mysticism since the Middle Ages, is al-insan al-kamil, which literally means the perfect (kamil) man (insan): the perfect, complete or universal human, the perfect saint. The Treasury author cites Spanish/Moroccan scholar Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi (1076–1148), who taught that “the perfect man exemplifies the divine purpose in creation – for a potentially perfect human being to realize his potential, his innate perfection, uniting with God Himself; for the human microcosm to realize itself as the macrocosm.” We learn that “the idea is derived from the biblical book of Genesis, which says that God made man in His own image.” The belief is that we can all realize this level of consciousness within ourselves. ‘Abd al-Karim al-Jili, who lived in fourteenth-century Baghdad, was known for his book Al Insan al-Kamil. He writes:
Man is the link between God and nature. Every man is a copy of God in His perfection; none is without the power to become a perfect man (al-insan al-kamil). It is the Holy Spirit that witnesses to man’s innate perfection; the spirit is man’s real nature and within him is the secret shrine of the divine Spirit. As God had descended into man, so man must ascend to God, and in the perfect man (al-insan alkamil), the true saint, the absolute Being, which had descended from its Absoluteness, returns again unto itself. In treading the Path, the sufi ascends until perfection is reached and, in the perfected saint, God and man become one again…
Drawing on the Indian spiritual heritage, we find a discussion of the familiar term ‘guru’ and its derivation:
Various traditional but doubtful etymologies are prevalent.Guru is said to be derived from gu (‘darkness’) and ru (‘removal’). Sometimes, ru is said to represent ‘light’. The guru is therefore said to be the one who dispels or removes the inner darkness and bestows inner light.
The state of the guru is great and sublime,
it is very difficult for even gods (devas) to attain.
The Reality of the guru (guru Tattva) is supreme,
there is nothing greater than the guru:
One should worship his guru and dedicate himself –
body, mind and soul – to the guru…
The related and more specific term puran guru literally means the complete or perfect teacher or perfect master, a guru of the highest order; he is also called the satguru. The entry in the Treasury explains that “he is called perfect because he has reached the highest stage of spiritual perfection, and has merged with the Divine. He is therefore perfect from a spiritual perspective… A puran guru is beyond death, one with and sustained by the creative power of God. He is a truly free soul.” A quotation is brought from the Adi Granth:
Good are his deeds, and glorious and (truly) wealthy is he,
within whose mind the instruction of the puran guru abides.
Grant Nanak an abode in the society of saints(sadhsang), O Lord,
whereby all the comforts shall become manifest unto him.
The Daoist (Taoist) Chinese mystics wrote about the qualities of the “great man” or spiritual master. In the ancient work called the Yijing, often known in the west as the I Ching, we read:
The great man (daren) is one who is in harmony with heaven and earth in all his attributes. He is one with the sun and the moon in his brightness. He joins the four seasons in his orderly proceedings. He is in accordance with the spirit-like operations of providence – with all that is fortunate and calamitous. He may precede heaven, and heaven will not act in opposition to him. He may follow heaven, but will act only as heaven itself would at the time. If heaven will not act in opposition to him, how much less will ordinary people?
A poem from the Quanzhen (Complete Reality) school of Daoism in the thirteenth century puts it very simply:
When obscurity(yin) is gone
and illumination (yang) is pure,
then the work is done;
The true human(zhenren) emerges
and visits the spiritual sky (shenxiao).
In a few years Part III is scheduled to be published, in six volumes, focusing on spiritual experiences and practices, experiences of death, and ‘dying while living’. Still later Part IV will appear, covering living in the world – morality and ethics, the vegetarian diet, human perfection and imperfection. A final volume will contain a complete bibliography, indexes, and cross-references.
Book reviews express the opinions of the reviewers and not of the publisher.