Second Birth: The Upanishads, Jesus and the Journey to Self

Recall that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a metaphor for the first awakening of human awareness: the ability to perceive a discreet self; the ability and propensity to judge phenomena as good or bad, depending on how we think we are affected; the ability to contemplate life, death and the nature of the universe.  It is, in short, the realization of ego.  In its immature form, the ego only perceives separation and vulnerability, and the response is fear along with a desperate grasping for protection at any cost.

The metaphorical Tree of Life represents a maturation of awareness.  It is achievement of a stage of realization that recognizes the interconnectedness and spiritual nature of life and all that is.  We are no longer just isolated selves, dependent solely on our ability to protect our body and our fragile ego.  We achieve a realization that we are part of something larger, something that transcends time, space and physical manifestation.  We are, in fact, living sparks of the very mind of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source, breathed full of the breath of life, the creative thrill of the universe.

The garden trees themselves are, in reality, only one.  They simply represent the manifestation of all that is, the complete creative activity of C/S/M/S.  They are the source and stuff of life, the universe and everything (appreciation and apologies to Douglas Adams).  The two trees are not distinguished by their unique and independent natures.  Rather, they are distinguished only by how we view them.  Their names – Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or Tree of Life – are just indicators of the level of our own spiritual maturity.  Have we grown to a level of trust and comfort with our place in the universe, a place of willingness to give and to receive without fear or grasping?  Do we trust that there is “that” of us that transcends birth and death, space and time?  Or do we see only as much as we can through the blinders of separation and scarcity, good and bad, physical life and death?

The journey from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil to the Tree of Life is, in reality, the journey from small “s” self to capital “S” Self.  Nowhere is that journey presented with more clarity than in the Upanishads, wisdom teachings attached to the Hindu Vedas that grew out of the merger of the Indo-European speaking Aryan culture and the resident culture of the Indus Valley.  This merger of cultures is believed to have happened about 4,000 years ago, placing the Vedas among, if not distinguishing them definitively as the earliest of what we would call scriptures.

The relevance for those of us in the West, particularly as we move away from a spirituality based on original sin and redemption through blood sacrifice, is tremendous.  Here are writings, among the earliest on spiritual reflection and experience, that discover and declare the difference between these two different levels of spiritual maturity.  There is no presentation or burden of guilt, just recognition that we are born into small “s” self and that our task in life is to grow, to mature to capital “S” Self, our connection with and existence in timeless being.

We are, in truest essence, born again when we make this move between the two trees, the journey from disconnected ego to connected essential being.  We achieve this step, our second birth, through renunciation of attachment to the senses – the mindless drive to chase what we think is pleasure and safety and to run from what we perceive as danger and pain.  Renunciation is not separation or disengagement from these life experiences.  Rather, it is to live them fully without attachment, without being driven and governed by them, recognizing their passing existence as opposed to our eternal being.

From the Isha Upanishad*:

6 Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
7Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

8The Self is everywhere.  Bright is the Self,
Indivisible, untouched by sin, wise,
Immanent and transcendent.  He it is
Who beholds the cosmos together.

From the Katha Upanishad*:

Part I [3] 15The supreme Self is beyond name and form,
Beyond the senses, inexhaustible,
Without beginning, without end, beyond
Time, space, and causality, eternal,
Immutable.  Those who realize the Self
Are forever free from the jaws of death.

Part II [1] 2The immature run after sense pleasures
And fall into the widespread net of death.
But the wise, knowing the Self as deathless,
Seek not the changeless in the world of change.
3That through which one enjoys form, taste, smell, sound,
Touch, and sexual union is the Self.
Can there be anything not known to That
Who is the One in all?  Know One, know all.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3: 3, NRSV).  This is indeed second birth, to renounce the fear and slavery of small “s” self, and to engage our true Self, at peace, at one with all there is.  Experience without fearing.  Enjoy without grasping.  Share without owning.  Choose, practice, to be born to Self under the Tree of Life.

*From The Upanishads, introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran, Nilgiri Press, © 1987, 2007 by The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Feel free to quote, as useful, with proper reference.

Jerry Kennell now provides spiritual direction by Skype.  Contact jerry@2treegarden.com.

A Good Read Under the Tree of Life

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we abuse scripture.  We bind it up in leather, with gilt pages and we worship it.  We thump it on the pulpit, we display it on the brass stand or podium, and when we do open it to read it, we shop for – and find – the bullets, knives and bombs we need to protect our separate selves and our separate religions.  The tree always gives us the fruit for which we ask.

Scripture is the place where the stirrings of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) meet the mind of humanity for distillation into concepts and words.  Bodies of scripture, combined with years of interpretation, become the normative structure and formative tradition for religions and even whole societies.  That is, perhaps, a useful social function.  But it also, when scripture is adopted as uniquely and exclusively authoritative, becomes the blinders of division that keep us from open interaction and rich cross-fertilization between traditions.  At its worst, it becomes the justification for oppression, violence against individuals, sexes and classes, used most abusively to support terrorism and war.

Types of scripture lend themselves to particular forms of abuse.  Historical narrative – the bulk of the Bible being the prime example – can, for instance, lead us to believe that the struggles and understandings of one culture are more than that.  We allow them to become the defining history of C/S/M/S to the exclusion of all others.  We miss the richness of interaction and learning when we idolize the characters and stories rather than seeing them as a useful record of human experience, much like our own.  When we close the canon, we in essence deny and shut down our own direct and vital connection to C/S/M/S.

Revealed scripture – the Koran, the Book of Mormon and more recently, A Course in Miracles – lends itself most easily to manipulation.  Followers may be tempted to grant it an air of particular exclusivity.  Again, the learning of the content is ignored in the sacralization of the whole.  We may find ourselves using it to define in-groups and out-groups, or to idolize the founder who received this intense spiritual download.

Myth – like we find in the Bhagavad Gita, the biblical creation narrative or the many stories of the Buddha – is sometimes written off as not being real.  We think, “How can something that is not real be as authoritative as something that is real?”  Or equally as risky, we make it authoritative, clinging to and slinging around a literal interpretation of a good teaching story.

I personally find most easily accessible the experiential writings – the Psalms, the Upanishads, the struggles of the prophets.  Somehow it is easier to place myself side-by-side with another human who relates their experience of wrestling with or finding unity on their spiritual path.  But the same risks apply.  I might be tempted to grant sacred status to the experience of another while denying the reality of my own interaction and relationship with C/S/M/S.  Or I might ignore the truth that is there because I grant higher status to another source.

We get all messed up with judgment under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good Evil.  We make this sacred and that secular.  We assign qualities and attributes to make things more or less than what they are.  And we do the same to ourselves.

In general, we have adopted a low view of ourselves in relation to all that we choose to label sacred.  We insist that we are stuck in our separation from C/S/M/S and that “believing in” this set of writings or the tenets of that religion will save us from our assumed natural state of doom.

I believe scripture.  I don’t believe in it.  What am I saying when I say that?  Under the Tree of Life, everything – absolutely everything – is available to us for learning and for growth.  The written experience of all cultures and interactors with C/S/M/S is useful.  We have tools to use, not objects to worship.

We don’t need to grant authority to one book or another.  C/S/M/S is our author, and we are the breath of that creation.  We have the same dynamic relationship as the prophets and writers of any past.  And we share the same temptations to isolation and to ego.

We have the opportunity to rest and to revel in the word, in all the words that we encounter in each day of our life.  They are the expression of our human discovery of connection and unity with C/S/M/S.

When we sacralize and canonize scripture, we profane our own lives.  The fruit is ours, to pick, to eat and to live.  It was never intended to be worshipped or to be thrown as a weapon at someone else.

Here we are, under the Tree of Life.  Let’s settle down with a good book.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Let folks know where you found it.