Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The Great Secret

Somewhere back in the 60s or 70s in a magazine (maybe Oz?) I saw a cartoon which had a seeker on a quest, finding a guru so he can ask him the Secret of Life.  The guru answers in his own language, leaving the seeker none the wiser.
Eventually he finds someone who can translate for him, so he will finally understand the secret wisdom imparted to him by the guru.
The traveller repeats the answer the guru had given him, to the interpreter, who says he can translate it into English.  He thinks for a second, and then says "I don't know.  Nobody knows."


I was reminded of this when I stumbled over a copy of  Maurice Maeterlinck's book
"The Great Secret." 
He is not someone I know that much about, but as the book is out of copyright you can download it for free, if you are curious.

I have browsed it so far, but not read it completely.  What intrigues me is that for all his research into religions and the occult, his conclusion seems to be that from the earliest times people have known that at bottom the universe remains a mystery, and that any possible explanations, extrapolations, theories, dogmas, and other models remain little more than guesses (when they are not out-and-out lies, bluffs, cons and shams).

All of which goes well with my own brief moment of insight, years ago, when I told myself to Accept The Mystery, and stop trying to solve the existential problem, or become enlightened, or manipulate the world to my own advantage, or any of that.

There ain't no answer.
There ain't gonna be any answer. 
There never has been an answer.
That's the answer.
Gertrude Stein

Maeterlinck actually reveals his conclusion early on in the book, before expanding on all the accretions and denials which have come to surround the simple truth:
 This suspicion, which will recur more than once as we probe more deeply into these religions, would explain the dread cry of occultist tradition, of which we have we have already spoken: "Osiris is a dark god!" Can it be that the great, supreme secret is absolute agnosticism? Without speaking of the esoteric doctrines, of which we are ignorant, have we not an all but public avowal in the word Maya, the most mysterious of Indian words, which means that all things, even the universe and the gods who create, uphold, and rule it, are but the illusion of ignorance, and that the uncreated and the unknowable alone are real?
But what religion could proclaim to its faithful: "We know nothing; we merely declare that this universe exists, or, at least appears to our eyes to exist. Does it exist of itself, is it itself a god, or is it but the effect of a remote cause? And behind this remote cause must we not suppose yet another and remoter cause, and so forth indefinitely, to the verge of madness: for if God is, who created God?
"Whether He is cause or effect matters little enough to our ignorance, which in any case remains irreducible. Its blind spots have merely been shifted. Traditions of great antiquity tell us that He is rather the manifestation of a Cause even more inconceivable than Himself. We accept this tradition, which is, perhaps, more inexplicable than the riddle itself as we perceive it, but which seems to take into account its apparently transitory or perishable elements, and to replace them by an eternal foundation, immutable and purely spiritual.
Knowing absolutely nothing of this Cause we must confine ourselves to noting certain propensities, certain states of equilibrium, certain laws, which seem to be its will. Of these, for the time being, we make gods. But these gods are merely personifications, perhaps accurate, perhaps illusory, perhaps erroneous, of what we believe ourselves to have observed. It is possible that other more accurate observations will dethrone them. It is possible that a day will come when we shall perceive that the unknown Cause, in some respect a little less unknown, has had other intentions than those which we have attributed to it. We shall then change the names, the purposes, and the laws of our gods. But in the meantime those whom we offer you are born of observations and experiences so wise and so ancient that hitherto none have been able to excel them."
While it was impossible thus to address its faithful, who would not have understood its confession, it could safely reveal the secret to the last initiates, who had been prepared by protracted ordeals and whose intelligence was attested by a selection of inhuman severity. To certain of these, then, it admitted everything.
It probably told them: "In offering mankind our gods we had no wish to deceive them. If we had confessed to them that God is unknown and incomprehensible; that we cannot say what He is or what He purposes; that He has neither shape nor substance nor dwelling-place, neither beginning nor end; that He is everywhere and nowhere; that He is nothing because He is everything: they would have concluded that He does not exist at all, that neither laws nor duties have any existence, and that the universe is a vast abyss in which all should make haste to do as they please. Now even if we know nothing we know that this is not so and cannot be so. We know, in any case, that the Cause of Causes is not material, as men would understand it, for all matter appears to be perishable, and perishable it cannot be. For us this unknown Cause is actually our God, because our understanding is capable of perceiving it as having a scope which is limited only by our finite imagination. We know, with a certainty that nothing has power to shake, that this Cause, or the Cause of this Cause, and so forth indefinitely, must exist, although we are aware that we can never know it or understand it. But very few men are capable of convincing themselves of the existence of a thing which they can never hope to touch, feel, hear, know, or understand. This is why, instead of the nothingness which they would think that we were offering them were we to tell them how ignorant we are of all things, we offer them as their guide certain apparent traces of purpose which we believe ourselves to have detected in the darkness of time and space."
The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named is not the eternal name
The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth
The named is the mother of myriad things

Thus, constantly free of desire
One observes its wonders
Constantly filled with desire
One observes its manifestations

These two emerge together but differ in name
The unity is said to be the mystery
Mystery of mysteries, the door to all wonders