In a conversation between Socrates and Callicles where the question of the soul's immortality cannot be solved by reasoning alone, Socrates appeals to Callicles' intuition with a myth. "Listen," he says, "to a very pretty tale, which I dare say that you may be disposed to regard as a fable only, but which, as I believe, is a true tale, for I mean to speak the truth" (Gorgias 523). So it is with the story of our spiritual home, the word home implying something about family, our inner parentage, and the nature of our relationships with one another.
Scientifically it is not difficult to imagine a rationale for our spiritual home. We know our bodies are quite literally a flowing garment of star stuff spun long ago in the heart of suns, themselves issued from the river of energies pouring from the first cosmic "atom." Thinking of the potency of the universe-to-be stored in that primary atom, why should we not conceive of it as a shining cosmic egg, as did the Orphic bards and Hindu rishis? Or why not also as the cosmic seed produced by its predecessor universe, in turn the progeny of its parent, and so on back into the very mystery of infinity?
A series of universes periodically emanating from within the hidden folds of space, each one instinct with life, evolving its natural hierarchies from subatoms to men to supergods, and bequeathing to its offspring not only the patterns of its physical forms, but also the potential of creativity and godlike wisdom: this is a natural thought because it follows nature's universal cyclic pattern. Too seldom, though, do we consider the intelligence aspect energizing and informing our universe. Our ancestors called the mysterious source of consciousness "spirit," from spiritus, meaning "breath" and therefore life. And it is this realm that humanity's enlightened ones have ever tried to help us understand and connect with our lives here on this garden planet we also call home.
The story of our spiritual home is universally recorded, and one beautifully compact version of it begins this way:
When I was a little child And dwelt in my kingdom, the house of my father,
And enjoyed the wealth and the luxuries of those who brought me up,
From the East, our homeland,
My parents provisioned and sent me;
And from the wealth of our treasury
They had already bound up for me a load.
Great it was, but (so) light
That I could carry it alone:
Gold from Beth 'Ellaye
And silver from great Gazak
And chalcedonies of India
And opals of the realm of Kushan.
And they girded me with adamant,
Which crushes iron.
And they took off from me the splendid robe
Which in their love they had wrought for me,
And the purple toga,
Which was woven to the measure of my stature,
And they made with me a covenant
And wrote it in my heart, that I might not forget:
"If thou go down to Egypt
And bring the one pearl
Which is in the midst of the sea,
In the abode of the loud-breathing serpent,
Thou shalt put on (again) thy splendid robe
And thy toga which lies over it,
And with thy brother, our next in rank,
Thou shalt be heir in our kingdom."
These opening lines of the "Song of the Pearl," also known as the "Hymn of the Soul," are part of an early Christian writing entitled the Acts of Thomas.* The story is told in the first person, suggesting that the hero-soul is ourself: Leaving his Eastern homeland, the young prince is led by two couriers down the dangerous and difficult way into Egypt, a symbol of material life. There he parts from his companions and goes straight to the serpent's lair where he meets a fellow kinsman from the East, an "anointed one" who befriends him and warns him against consorting with the Egyptians. However, lest they recognize him as a stranger and rouse the serpent against him, the prince clothes himself in local garments and then eats their food, the heaviness of which causes him to fall into the sleep of forgetfulness.
*New Testament Apocrypha, trans. R. MacLachlan Wilson, ed. Wilhelm Schneemelcher, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1965, 2:498-504. In this work, as in the Gospel of Thomas, discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, the Apostle Judas Thomas is the "twin brother" of Jesus and a mediator of his secret revelation.
On learning this his parents grieve, and they send a proclamation throughout their kingdom that their son should not be left in Egypt. They write him a letter which, in the form of an eagle, alights beside him and "becomes all speech," exhorting him to remember that he is the son of kings, to remember the pearl, and to remember his splendid robe and glorious mantle.
As the words are spoken, memory returns. He begins pronouncing his father's name over the terrible serpent, followed by the name of the next in rank, then his mother's, queen of the East; and the spell causes it to fall into deep sleep. Retrieving the pearl, he turns about and begins his journey eastward and upward to his ancestral homeland, there to dwell in friendship and concord with his noble family.
The world's sacred literatures say much about this mysterious kingdom. Like the inner and outer nature of man — spiritual and physical — counterparts of it exist on earth, as well as in the sun, and beyond. For example, besides the earthly Jerusalem, both Jewish and Christian testaments speak of the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem on Mount Zion ("citadel" or "fortress") where the assembly of angels and just men made perfect dwell in an Eden-like garden (Psalms 46:4, 48:1-14; Isa 513; Heb 12:22-3).
In Greek mythology, there is the gods' home on Olympus and the world's "navel" at Delphi. Mystically connected with them is the mysterious northern yet ever-springlike Hyperborean country beyond the mountains — in some accounts situated under the North Pole — to which Apollo journeyed in his chariot of swans. Its long-lived peoples have reached such completeness and harmony that they are beyond the reach of Nemesis. Also connected with these regions are the supernally beautiful Isles of the Blessed, the last home of the heroes and of those whose noble lives have earned them the right to dwell there.
The Persian Avesta locates the cradle of the race in the world's central keshvar or zone (Khvaniratha). There are seven such "climes," symbolized by the seven-storied ziggurat, a figure of the cosmic mountain. Likewise the Hindus and Buddhists speak of Meru, the central Mountain. Although it has been identified with several Himalayan peaks, it is mystically situated on the axis of Earth and cosmos, and surrounded by seven (or twelve) mountain ranges. At its summit reigns the king of the gods, Indra, in his heavenly jeweled palace or, in other versions, Brahma, god of the gods, in his square city of gold. Descending from its peak are the seven heavens or spheres (lokas) and, under the mountain, the seven netherworlds (talas), all resting on and supported by the giant serpent Sesha-Ananta. Connected with Meru is the legendary Shambhala, the mountain-hidden realm of spiritual kings celebrated for their mystic knowledge, from which the next avatara will come to revive the dharma of wisdom and compassion.
Throughout the world we find similar traditions of mankind's spiritual homeland, all describing it as our place of origin and final destination, the source of our essential being, and the life-sustaining fount of wisdom and happiness. Were they not so universal, we might easily dismiss them as comforting fantasies having no more reality than Dorothy's Emerald City in the Land of Oz. The descriptions vary widely in details; some are obviously exaggerated, and most are deliberately mythic, full of omissions and blinds to prevent the unprepared from unwisely rushing their journey. But when viewed together they are remarkably consistent in essentials, giving us pause to wonder about the truth within the myth, the hidden logos within the mythos.
Tibetan Buddhists speak of their guidebooks to Shambhala, and in a sense all sacred philosophical literatures are such. For most if not all of them concur that to reach our original homeland we must reorient our lives and equip ourselves interiorly to ascend the mountains of the spirit. In the ancient Mystery schools, this training included a thorough ethical discipline as well as instruction in geography, astronomy, and other pertinent subjects. To find our spiritual home, we need not only a working knowledge of our physical universe, but also a chart of the inner cosmos as well.
With today's satellite photos, we could easily believe that our planet is fairly well mapped. Not so, according to the guidebooks. In Plato's Phaedo, for example, Socrates compares our existence to creatures on the sea floor who are deceived into believing the ocean above is the heaven through which they see the sun and stars. Likewise are we deceived into believing that we live on the surface of our globe, whereas in fact we live in one of its "hollows." Owing to our "feebleness and sluggishness" we are prevented from reaching the surface:
for if any man could arrive at the exterior limit, or take the wings of a bird and come to the top, then like a fish who puts his head out of the water and sees this world, he would see a world beyond; and if the nature of man could sustain the sight, he would acknowledge that this other world was the place of the true heaven and the true light and the true earth. — Phaedo 109-10 (Jowett)
Socrates describes this upper earth as a place of brighter and clearer colors, a fair region in which everything grows — trees, flowers, and fruits — more beautifully than any here. It is a land of smoother, more transparent stones, of abundant jaspers, emeralds, and other jewels uncorrupted by the corrosions of our world. Because of its temperate climate and purer air, there is no disease; the people live much longer than we do, and have sight, hearing, and all the other senses in greater perfection. "Also," he continues,
they have temples and sacred places in which the gods really dwell, and they hear their voices and receive their answers, and are conscious of them and hold converse with them; and they see the sun, moon, and stars as they truly are, and their other blessedness is of a piece with this. — 111
Persian traditions describe a similar multidimensional cosmos. According to French scholar Henry Corbin, in his The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, one of the major themes in Sufi literature is the "Quest for the Orient." This Orient, however, is not situated on any geographical map; it is not any of the seven climes or keshvars, but is
in fact the eighth clime. And the direction in which we must seek is not on the horizontal but on the vertical. This suprasensory, mystical Orient, the place of the Origin and the Return, object of the eternal Quest, is at the heavenly pole; it is the Pole, at the extreme north, so far off that it is the threshold of the dimension "beyond." — p. 2
In order to see this region of light, the Sufi strives to develop his spiritual eyes and other suprasensory organs of perception, called the seven lata'if — only like can perceive like. This spiritual transmutation can be accomplished only with the help of the sage's inner Guide of Light, his eternal companion and "heavenly witness," the luminous image of the divine archetypal Man. The Sufi evolves and liberates his own body of Light by continuous prayer (dhikr, "recollection") and by progressively identifying with this heavenly Twin of Light, variously called the Sun of the mystery, Sun of high knowledge, Sun of the heart, and Sun of the spirit. In the words of the 12th-century Sufi Najmuddin Kubra:
Each time a light rises up from you, a light comes down toward you . . . If their energies are equal, they meet half-way (between Heaven and Earth). . . . But when the substance of light has grown in you, then this becomes a Whole in relation to what is of the same nature in Heaven: then it is the substance of light in Heaven which yearns for you and is attracted by your light, and it descends toward you. This is the secret of the mystical approach. — p. 73
As his spiritual body evolves, the Sufi feels as if he is rising up from within a well and, nearing its mouth, he gradually perceives the emerald light of the heavenly Earth, the "eighth clime" in the cosmic north, said to be "halfway between heaven" and our physical earth. This region answers in description to the Mshunia Kushta of the Mandean gnostics, the intermediate world peopled by a divine race of purified humans. They are the descendants of the hidden Adam and Eve, and among them every earthly human has his own Twin of Light. The Mandeans believe this ideal Earth is also in the north, separated from our world by a high and icy mountain (Corbin, pp. 57-8).
Similarly, the Buddhists describe Shambhala as surrounded by a ring of snowy mountains, glistening with ice, which keeps out those not yet fit to enter. In some texts it is placed in northern Tibet, while others suggest it is at the North Pole. According to Edwin Bernbaum's comprehensive study of the sambhala traditions (The Way to Shambhala, p. 6), some Tibetan lamas believe the peaks are perpetually hidden in a mist, or so remote that few can ever get close enough to see them. The texts imply that the only way to cross them is to fly over them, and this can be done only by exercising one's spiritual powers.
Modern theosophic books explain that there are at least three floors or aspects to our spiritual home: the ground floor has its central locus in Shambhala, said to occupy an actual district in Western or Greater Tibet, but protected as it were by an "akasic veil." The second or intermediate floor is the mystic continent at the North Pole, and the third is in the sun with higher stories undoubtedly at the heart of the galaxy and beyond.* All these traditions imbody a singular thread of teaching about the human condition: that until we retrieve the pearl of Self-consciousness, and "breathe" with our lustrous god-soul within, we are subject to reimbodiment on earth. Since it is earth life which offers the opportunities for growth we need in our present stage of evolution, that is presumably why the pearl is to be cultivated here, not elsewhere. Those who have succeeded, however, and have earned their place in what Paul (or his editor) called the "fellowship of the mystery" hidden in God (Ephesians 3:9), may then choose to reincarnate voluntarily for the benefit of mankind. For the role of the great ones has never been designated as one of a selfish, otherworldly bliss; in several of the traditions are hints and statements about their protective guardianship.
*Cf. "Our Spiritual Home," Fountain-Source of Occultism, pp. 529-32; The Secret Doctrine 2:6-7, 393ff.
The Zoroastrian Avesta, for example, refers to the mediator-angel Sraosha dwelling on the cosmic mountain Hare, at the "bridge of decision" leading to paradise, and "head of a brotherhood of migrants who 'keep watch' on the world and for the world" (Corbin, p. 57). Similarly there is Socrates' powerful statement in the Republic (519): once the philosopher has achieved the vision of the true sun, and of the Beautiful and Just and Good in their truth, he is compelled by justice and love for his fellowman to return once again to the underground abode and partake of its labors, helping all who are in the travail of soul birth.
For most of us our spiritual home, however we wish to call it, probably seems distant and unrelated to our day-to-day lives where we have clear responsibilities to family and others. Must we head for Tibet and parts north to find true and enduring happiness? The Hindu myths remind us that at the summit of Meru the heavenly Ganges encircles Brahma's gold city, then divides into four rivers which flow to the four points of the compass. Perhaps this is a way of saying that there is a continuous flow of inspiration from our homeland into every corner of our world, helping us to fulfill our duties here and comprehend that spiritual growth and peace of heart and mind do not depend on our geographical location.
In this regard, there is much to be said for the way of the Paramitas, those simple Buddhist virtues that enable us to "cross over" to the other shore of enlightenment. These are universally taught in every great tradition and can be practiced anywhere: charity, harmony of thought, word, and deed, patience, equanimity, diligence, and rightmindedness.* When rooted in a deeply felt altruism, and like a "light rising up" from us, they work a heavenly magic that touches the whole of cosmos.
*Cf. "The Six Glorious Virtues of Buddhism," Expanding Horizons by James. A. Long).
As we come to realize how intimately connected we are with the farthest and innermost reaches of the universe, we also begin to understand that not only are we citizens of the cosmos, but truly vital members of its family of lives. How different our world would be were we all to treat one another accordingly. Brotherhood simply means common parentage; how much more it means depends on our point of view, the place within us from which we see each other. In the Gospel of Thomas (24) the disciples say to Jesus, "Show us the place where you are, since it is necessary for us to seek it." And he replied: "Whoever has ears, let him hear. There is light within a man of light, and he lights up the whole world. If he does not shine, he is darkness."
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 1990; copyright © 1990 Theosophical University Press)