- About Us
- Brother David
by Patricia Campbell Carlson
photos by Roshi Joan Halifax
"What if a loved one who was constantly at your side has now died? Isn’t your treasure gone?"
If you walk up to most anyone on the street and ask if they have ever had an opportunity to contemplate the soul-stirring images of the ninth tractate of Plotinus’ sixth Ennead, you will probably get a puzzled stare. It would be a crazy question to ask of a stranger, given the cautious courtesies with which most relationships begin; but beyond that, very few people have even heard of Plotinus except perhaps for a quick mention in a philosophy class long ago. How surprising, since the words of this great Greek philosopher, who lived from 204 to 270 CE, go straight to the core of what matters. To pick one example out of a profound book chock full of them, we find that Plotinus writes about looking upon the Divine with complete attention, as if we were members of a choir:
In this choiring, the soul looks upon the wellspring of Life, wellspring also of Intellect, beginning of Being, fount of Good, root of Soul. It is not that these are poured out from the Supreme, lessening it as if it were a thing of mass. At that the emanants would be perishable; but they are eternal; they spring from an eternal principle, which produces them not by its fragmentation but in virtue of its intact identity: therefore they too hold firm; so long as the sun shines, so long will there be light.
Plotinus: The Enneads VI.9.9
If you have ever lost someone you love, if you have ever lived through a disaster in which your property was stolen or destroyed, if you have ever even contemplated your own mortality, if you feel the shakiness of the society right now, it would not be an exaggeration to say that these words are of infinite comfort. That which emanates from the Wellspring of Life, an eternal principle, is eternal. More simply put, true treasures cannot be lost. By gazing into our divine Source, we are in constant touch with the imperishable nature of that which we most love.
But what does that truth mean if you wake up one day, say, to face acute absence? What if a loved one who was constantly at your side has now died? Isn’t your treasure gone? Each of us comes to our own understanding about death, that mystery of mysteries. Some of us find it so overwhelming that we do not even try. To stay within the everyday realm of the tangible is in many ways much easier. When we allow our view to narrow in this way, though, we are then repeatedly taken aback by the intense reality of love, on the one hand, and the absolute certainty of death and change on the other. How can existence span these two seemingly polar opposite extremes?
Some of us get jolted so hard that our choices become startling: to take our own life or to expand our understanding. When we take the second of these two paths, tragedy becomes a blessing.
But something else besides his collapse had happened, something that would sustain me through
terribly dark days ahead.
In my own experience, that blessing-in-disguise came through becoming an orphan, a word which I have come to hear as sacred, one that has the power to throw us back on nurturing strength of the Divine. When my mother died, the hole that opened up inside me was beyond measure, all out of proportion to being a small, three-year-old child. What I could not have known at the time but can see in retrospect is that the hole was a doorway, a passage towards that shining Light of which Plotinus eloquently speaks. The immeasurable scale of the door reflected the size of the gift.
Losing my mother made me start looking for understanding at an early age, but it was my father’s death when I was 15 that put the search into full gear. Our family had just moved, and my sister and I were at one end of our new house while my step-mother and father were at the other. Even though we were inside, suddenly – how can I describe this? – the heavens opened, and my being soared up into the stars in a rich ecstasy that came out of nowhere. Love and a feeling of tremendous belonging filled me. My sister and I looked at each other – both of us had felt something astounding, in spite of our surroundings remaining unchanged – and then without a word we raced back to our parents’ bedroom. Our father had just collapsed of a heart attack, from which he perished.
But something else besides his collapse had happened, something that would sustain me through terribly dark days ahead and an even longer period fraught with more trials during which I wanted to die, too. My father’s body lay on the floor, and my step-mother tried to revive him, agonizingly calling his name. Yet I had experienced his soul migrating. He had stretched his wings towards his vast Source, and his love had drawn my sister and me into the moment with him. That experience may be the strongest of my entire life, underscoring what Plotinus goes on to say in the passage which follows the one above: “The Supreme does not give and pass but gives on for ever, so long as it remains what it is.” This is not philosophy in the dry, detached sense. It is a living encounter with that which outlasts death.
Then what do we make of the things of earth? Philosophers will debate this question until the end of time. I have come to side with poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins in particular: “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things” (“God’s Grandeur”). In moments of wonder – moments we can cultivate and so increase them – we experience this precious underlying nature of things, the breath of Life that fills and literally inspires every perishable form.
If that’s the case, you would be wise and fair to ask why Plotinus in the same tractate goes on to speak of the soul putting away “the evil of the earth” and to remind us that “…our good was not here; this was not what we sought.” Usually I have a hard time with that part of The Enneads. As a human being, a peacemaker, and particularly as a woman – someone who brings life to earth – I always want to see the whole picture, the Divine dwelling in matter as well as the Divine transcendent, and then, thirdly, to see that bridge between the two, the emanating light.
But when things fall apart, I know exactly what Plotinus means. Think of the diverse times we refer to “security”: To name a couple, our stocks and bonds are “securities” and our fight against terrorism is “homeland security.” As I write, traditional stock-market wisdom is being turned on its head, and many of us who were convinced that our investments should remain more-or-less untouched through the ups and downs of the markets have either panicked and changed our minds or at least had dire second thoughts. As for America’s homeland security, we often experience it as a constant Orange Alert, an anxiety brewing right beneath the surface so that we never feel secure anymore. “Our good was not” in that kind of “security”!
References to this true security go on and on
through the bounty of earth’s spiritual traditions.
Which brings us back to other ancient truths. Psalm 23 reminds us, “I shall not want.” “I shall not want” has nothing to do with sound banking strategies or with armies. If they may keep us from wanting today, they are just as likely to fail or endanger us tomorrow. The psalmist speaks of a tender, protective alternative to these shakier attempts at security. He uses the metaphor, well known to his listeners, of a shepherd, one so intimately connected with his flock that he cannot help but have their good in mind at all times.
That good is a far cry from the foolhardiness of misplaced desires. Do not, warns Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, store up treasure on earth, “where it grows rusty and moth-eaten, and thieves break in to steal it. Store up treasure in heaven, where there is no moth and no rust to spoil it, no thieves to break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). Since the Good Shepherd’s presence amongst us brought heaven to earth, we can safely know that these true treasures of the heart are not merely ones we will experience after this life. Rather, they are the very essence within this life.
References to this true security, found above in Judaic and Christian scriptures, go on and on through the bounty of earth’s spiritual traditions. One of the names of Allah in Islam is Razzaq, the Sustainer. Here again we encounter the One who insures our sustenance through all the ebb and flow of life. And an astonishing image comes from Paramahamsa Ramakrishna in the Hindu tradition, as recounted in Lex Hixon’s Great Swan:
Do you know what I witnessed earlier this afternoon during the state of absorption? I experienced the Divine Mother as a young woman nine months pregnant. She gave birth to the manifest world, cradled and caressed it, nursed it at Her breast, and then began to swallow it. As the universe entered Her dark Mouth in the form of a radiant infant, it was immediately revealed to be void of any substantial or independent existence.
What a way to express the dearness of things alongside their dependence on the Divine! Putting this feminine vision into masculine words, we read in Acts 17:28, “In Him we live and move and have our being.” There is no life apart from that Being, hidden within our experience.
Buddhist poet Rengetsu touches on a further aspect of this truth as we hear in this translation by Kazuaki Tanahashi and Roshi Joan Halifax:
Longing in the Wind
I await my beloved
who is not yet here.
The moon in the pines
and voice of the wind
provoke my longing.
We live in this longing; our very waiting attests to the imminence of that which we desire. “The moon in the pines and voice of the wind” speak of an already present response which – in spite of its presence – remains a mystery, an ongoing quest for our hearts. We glimpse the moon through pine needles; it is not a full view. The wind’s voice speaks a language we can almost but not quite grasp. The moment we think we "got" it, the meaning slips away. And longingly we reach again for that which can never be held.
“Our being is the fuller for our turning Thither,” writes Plotinus, “this is our prosperity.” Our turning is a continuous act, like that of a skillful juggler who never pauses while he keeps globes in the air, or a whirling dervish whose feet do not come to a rest as she spins around a perfectly still center. “To turn, turn, will be our delight, ‘til by turning, turning we come round right,” as the Shaker song reminds us.
And so in these uncertain times, we turn again and again to our own Source and find our strength there. We place ourselves gratefully once more in that expansive freedom where, in Plotinus’ words, there is “no part in us remaining but through it we have touch with God.” For what greater prosperity could we ask?
MacKenna, Stephen. Plotinus: The Enneads. Burdett, NY: Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation by Larson Publications, 1992.
Abrams, M.H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Third Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974.
Sandmel, Samuel et al. The New English Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Bayrak, Sheikh Tosun. The Most Beautiful Names. Putney, VT: Threshold Books, 1985.
Hixon, Lex. Great Swan: Meetings with Ramakrishna. Burdett, NY: Published for the Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation by Larson Publications, 1996.
Rengetsu, Otagaki. Ten Poems of Rengetsu, translated by Kaz Tanahashi and Joan Halifax Roshi.
Patricia Campbell Carlson served as Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living (ANG*L) from 2005-2013, before which she helped with community support in the early days of the website.