Knowledge and the Sacred - Nasr

Knowledge and the Sacred
Seyyed Hossein Nasr  1981/1989

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Definition of "Tradition" 
Tradition means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic sector through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avatara, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles in different realms including law and social structure, art, symbolism, the sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means for its attainment.

In its more universal sense tradition can be considered to include the principles which bind man to Heaven, and therefore religion, which from another point of view religion can be considered in its essential sense as those principles which are revealed by Heaven and which bind man to his Origin.  

Tradition implies truths of a supraindividual character rooted in the nature of reality as such for as it has been said "Tradition is not a childish and outmoded mythology but a science that is terribly real."

Tradition, like religion, is at once truth and presence.  It concerns the subject which knows and the object which is known.  It comes from the Source from which everything originates and to which everything returns.  It thus embraces all things like the "Breath of the Compassionate" which, according to Sufis, is the very root of existence itself.  

Tradition has most recently become related to that perennial wisdom which lies at the heart of every religion and which is none other than the Sophia whose possession the sapiential perspective in the West as well as the Orient has considered as the crowning achievement of human life.  


Pontifical Man as Traveler
The Pontifical Man [the Traditional Man, the bridge between Heaven and earth] although forgotten in the modern world, continues to live . . .  he is the being who remains aware of his destiny which is transcendence, and the function of his intelligence which is knowledge of the Absolute.  He is fully aware of the preciousness of human life, which alone permits a creature living in this world to journey beyond the cosmos, and is always conscious of the great responsibility which such an opportunity entails.  He knows that the grandeur of man does not lie in his cunning cleverness or titanic creations but resides most of all in the incredible power to empty himself of himself, to cease to exist in the initiatic sense, to participate in that state of emptiness which permits him to experience Ultimate Reality.

Pontifical man stands at the perigee of an arc half of which represents the trajectory through which he has descended from the Source . . . and the other half, the arc of ascent which he must follow to return to that Source.  The whole constitution of man reveals this role of the traveler who becomes what he "is" and is what he becomes.

Journeying from the earth to his celestial abode, which he has left inwardly, man becomes the channel of grace for the earth, and the bridge which joins it to Heaven.  Realization of the truth by pontifical man is not only the goal and end of the human state but also the means whereby Heaven and earth are reunited in marriage, and the Unity, which is the Source of the cosmos and the harmony which pervades it, is reestablished.  To be fully man is to rediscover that primordial Unity from which all the heavens and earths originate and yet from which nothing ever really departs.

Precisely because  of the awareness of his origin and of his home, the person in whom the fire of sacred knowledge has become inflamed and in who the search and quest for the knowledge of the sacred has become a central concern, is already a stranger to this world.  He is an exile constantly in quest of that land of nowhere which is yet the ubiquitous Center and which constitutes his original homeland.  

The theme of the stranger or exile runs like a golden thread through the sapiential [Traditional, Sacred] and gnostic literature of all traditions.  After the wanderer drinks the elixir of Divine Knowledge he regains his original consciousness and primordial abode.  His wandering ceases and he arrives after his long cosmic journey at that home from which his true self never departed;"The Place which has no name" say Rumi.

For man to become an exile in this world is already a sign of spiritual awakening.  

The person who possesses the intellectual intuition which enables him to have a vision of the supernal realities cannot but be alienated in a world characterized by material condensation, separation, and most of all illusion.  For him knowledge is both the means of journeying from this world to the abode which corresponds to his inner reality, and which is therefore his home, and of seeing this world not as veil but as theophany [physical, apparent form of the Divine], not as opacity but as transparence. . . . 

Through knowledge the Traditional Man can either journey beyond the cosmos to that metacosmic Reality in the light of which nothing else possesses separative existence, or he can realize here and now that the world as separation and veil did not even possess an independent reality and that the experience of the world as prison was itself a result of ignorance and false attribution.  In either case the realization of sacred or principial knowledge delivers man from the bondage of that limitation which characterizes man's terrrestrial existence and makes him an exile removed from his original abode and his true self.  

The journey to the spiritual Orient by the person in quest of sacred kknowledge is the journey to the Tree of Life, to that tree whose fruit bore for man the unitive knowledge from which he became deprived upon tasting the fruit of the Tree of Good and Evil or separative knowledge.


The Vision of the Universe as Theophany
Sacred knowledge is based in the language of symbolism.  The contemplation of certain natural forms as reflecting Divine Qualities and the vision of the cosmos as Divine is based on the power of forms to be occasions for recollection in the Platonic sense and the essential identity of natural forms with their archetypal paradisal origin.  Spiritual realization implies this "metaphysical transparency of natural forms and objects" as a necessary dimension and aspect of "seeing God everywhere."   

"Seeing with the eye of the heart" reveals the cosmos as a theophany.  To behold the cosmos with the eye of the intellect is to see it as a theatre wherein are reflected aspects of the Divine Qualities, as a myriad of mirrors reflecting the face of the Beloved, as the theophany of that Reality which resides at the Center of the being of man himself.  To see the cosmos as theophany is to see the reflection of one-Self in the cosmos of its forms.

In traditions based upon a scared scripture the cosmos reveals its meaning as a vast book whose pages are replete with the words of the Author and possesses multiple levels of meaning.  This perspective is to be found in Judaism and Islam where the eternal Torah and the Quran are seen as prototypes of both the revealed book and that other grand book or virgin nature which reflects God's primordial revelation.  In Christianity this vision was present and majestically depicted by Dante until the inner meaning of revelation itself became inaccessible.  

In Islam the correspondence between man, the cosmos, and the sacred book is central to the whole religion.  The sacred book of Islam is the written or composed Quran as well as the cosmic Quran.  Its verses are called ayat which means also signs or symbols to which the Quran itself refers in the verse "We shall show them our portents upon the horizon and within themselves, until it be manifest unto them that it is the truth."  The ayat are the Divine Words and Letters which comprise at once the elements of the Divine Book, the macrocosmic world and the inner being of man.  The ayat manifest themselves in the Holy Book, the horizons or the heavens and earth and the soul of man.  

The theophanic aspect of virgin nature aids in man's discovery of his own inner being.  Nature is herself a divine revelation with its own metaphysics and mode of prayer, but only a contemplative already endowed with sacred knowledge can read the gnostic message written in the most subtle manner upon the cliffs of high mountains, the leaves of the trees, the faces of animals and the stars of the sky.

In the traditions of the American Indians, animals and plants are symbols of various Divine Qualities.  In such traditions there exists a knowledge of nature which is direct and intimate yet inward.  The animal masks of certain archaic traditions or the waterfalls of Taoists paintings depicting the descent of the One into the plane of multiplicity are . . . epiphanies of the Sacred based on the most profound knowledge of the very essence of the natural forms involved. 

The spiritual man sees in the forms of nature the signatures of the celestial archetypes and in her movements and rhythms the exposition of a metaphysics of the highest order.  To such a person nature is at once an aid to spiritual union, for man needs the world in order to transcend it, and a support for the presence of that very reality which lies at once beyond and within her forms created by the hands of the Supreme Artisan.  To contemplate the cosmos as theophany is to realize that all manifestation from the One is return to the One, that all separation is union, that all otherness is sameness, that all plenitude is the Void.  It is to see God everywhere.


Traditional Sacred Art
Tradition speaks to man not only through human words.  Like the words of sacred scripture and the forms of nature, works of sacred or traditional art ultimately are a revelation from that Reality which is the source of both tradition and the cosmos.  Traditional art is inseparable from sacred knowledge because it is based upon a science of the cosmos which is of a sacred and inward character and in turn is the vehicle for the transmission of a knowledge which is of a sacred nature.  Traditional art is at once based upon and is a channel for both knowledge and grace or that sciential sacra which is both knowledge of a sacred character.  Sacred art is at once truth and presence.

Traditional art is traditional because of its conformity to cosmic laws of forms, to the laws of symbolism, to the formal genius of the particular spiritual universe in which it has been created, its hieratic style, its conformity to the nature of the material used, and finally, its conformity to the truth within the particular domain of reality with which it is concerned.  Such an art is aware of the essential nature of things.

In traditional art is based on the idea of art form man's sake, which means ultimately art for God's sake for to make something for man as a theomorphic being is to make it for God.  In traditional art there is a blending of beauty and utility which makes of every object of traditional art something at once useful and beautiful.  

It is through its art that tradition forges and forms an ambience in which its truths are reflected everywhere, in which men breath and live in a universe of meaning in conformity with the reality of the tradition in question.   Art reflects the truth to the extent that it is sacred, and it emanates the presence of the sacred to the extent that it is true.

It is the traditional man that makes traditional art.  Man is a work of art because God is the Supreme Artist.  That is why He is called in Islam "He who creates forms."  Man is also an artist who, in imitating the creative posers of his Maker, realizes his won theomorphic nature.  The spiritual man, aware of his vocation, is not only the musician who plucks the lyre to create music.  He is himself the lyre upon which the Divine Artist plays, creating the music which reverberates throughout the cosmos.

Traditional man creates art in full consciousness of his imitating God's creativity through not competition with but in submission to the Divine Model which tradition provides for him.  He therefore imitates nature not in the external forms but in its manner of operation.  Traditional art is the vehicle of an intellectual intuition and a sacred message which transcend both the individual artist and the collective psyche of the world to which he belongs.

In creating art in conformity with cosmic laws and in imitation of realities of the archetypal world, man realizes himself, his theomorphic nature, as a work of art made by the hands of  God.  

Form and Transformation
Form is the reality of an object on the material level of existence.  But it is also, as the reflection of an archetypal reality, the gate which opens inwardly and "upwardly" unto the formless Essence.  As far as sacred art is concerned, this content is always the sacred or a sacred presence placed in particular forms by revelation which sanctifies certain symbols, forms, and images to enable them to become "containers" of this sacred presence and transforms them into vehicles for the journey across the stream of becoming.  Thanks to those sacred forms man is able to penetrate into the inner dimension of his own being and, by virtue of that process, gain a vision of the inner dimension of all forms.  Only the sacred forms invested with the transforming poser of the sacred through revelation and the Logos which is its instrument can enable man to see God everywhere.

To reach the formless man has need of forms.  The miracle of the sacred form lies in the fact of its power to aid man to transcend form itself.  Sacred art is present to serve as a support for the contemplation of the Beyond which alone gives ultimate significance to both man's making and man's doing.  The origin of the forms with which sacred art deals is nothing other than the immutable world of the essences or ideas which are also the source of our thoughts and knowledge.  

The origin of forms in the natural world is the Divine Intellect.  Now, the form of art must be conceived in the same way as far as traditional art is concerned.  The source of these forms is the Intellect which illuminates the mind of the artist.  In this way the artist imitates the operation of nature rather than her external forms.  Moreover, the form which is wed with matter and the form which is the "idea" in the mind of the artist are from the same origin and of the same nature except on different levels of existence.

Sacred art is a science of cosmic harmony, of correspondences, of the multidimensional reality of forms, of sympathy between earthly forms and celestial influences, of the rapport between colors, orientations, configurations, shapes, and also sounds and smells and the soul of man.  It is a science . . . of Intellectual intuition.

All sacred art has its Tao, its principle which is related to the principles which dominate the cosmos.  To paint according to the Tao is not emulate the outward but the inner principles of things.  The fruit of such an art is a beauty of celestial origin.

According to a well-known Hermetic (alchemical) saying, "that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest," material existence which is lowest symbolizes and reflects the Intellect or the archetypal essences which represent the highest level.  This is why an icon or a canvas [or photograph, etc.]  can become the locus of Divine Presence and support for the contemplation of the formless.  

It is through the channel of traditional art that a knowledge of a sacred character manifests itself, outwardly cloaked in the dress of beauty which attracts the sensibility of even those who are not able to understand its tenets intellectually, while providing an indispensible spiritual climate and contemplative support for those who do not understand its veridical message and whose vocation is to follow the sapiential path.

Traditional art is concerned with beauty which is inseparable from reality and is related to the inner dimension of the Real as such . . . Ultimate Reality as being the Absolute, the Infinite, and Perfection or Goodness.  Beauty reflects the Absolute in its regularity and order, infinity in its sense of inwardness and mystery, and demands perfection.  A masterpiece of traditional art is at once perfect, orderly, and mysterious.  It reflects the perfection and goodness of the Source, the harmony and order which are also reflected in the cosmos and which are the imprint of the absoluteness of the Principle in manifestation and the mystery and inwardness which open unto the Divine Infinitude itself.  It is this interiorizing power of beauty that is emphasized and God is seen especially in His inward "dimension" which is beauty.
Intelligence can not be separated from Beauty.  The illuminated human intellect cannot but be intertwined with that beauty which removes from thing their opacity and enables them to shine forth as transparent images and reflections which reveal rather than veil the archetypal realities that are the concern of the intellect, the Logos or Divine Intellect which is the source of the human intellect, being itself both order and mystery and in as sense, the beauty of God.  Beauty bestows upon the intelligence that highest gift which is certitude.  It also melts the hardness of the human soul and brings about the taste of that union which is the fruit of gnosis.  

In this sense beauty becomes a divine attraction rather than a seduction and is able to communicate something of the formless Essence in forms.  In this sense beauty not only transmits knowledge but is inseparable from knowledge of the sacred and sacred knowledge.  

Beauty is the Divine maya of the Real and the aura of the Absolute.  All manifestations of the Ultimate Reality are accompanied by this aura which is beauty.  One cannot speak of reality in the metaphysical sense without this splendor and radiance which surround it like a halo and which constitute beauty itself.  That is why creation is overwhelmingly beautiful.  

A work of sacred art melts the hard shell of the human ego and leaves an indelible mark upon the soul.  Seen in the sapiential perspective, beauty, always in rapport with God, is a sacrament that elevates man to the realm of the sacred.  From the gnostic point of view.  the earthly function of beauty is therefore to guide man back to the source of this earthly beauty.  Sacred art is a means of remembrance of what man is and the celestial abode from which he has descended and which he carries still the depth of his being.  

For certain human beings particularly sensitive to beauty, any creation of traditional sacred art can crystallize a state of contemplation and bring about a degree of intuitive knowledge in a single moment that would be impossible for them to even conceive through long periods of study.   

To be sensitive to the beauty of forms, whether natural or in the domain of sacred art, is to be blessed with a contemplative spirit.  To remain aware of the liberating beauty of forms as channels of grace, and to be open to the message of these forms, is to be blessed with the possibility of reception of sacred knowledge.  

Realization of sacred knowledge enables man to become himself a work of art, the supreme work of art of the Supreme Artist.  

Eternity and the Temporal Order
Not only does man stand at the point of intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes of existence, but he also lives at the moment when the eternal and the temporal meet.  He is at once a being located in time and the process of change and one who is made from the Eternal and the Immutable and who is able to gain access to the Eternal even when living outwardly in the domain of becoming.  He can, moreover, live in time and experience it not only as change and transience but also as the "moving image of eternity."

Man's awareness of his mortality is in a sense proof of his immortality, of the fact that he was created for the Eternal.  Moreover, there exists within normal man a natural attraction for the eternal which is none other that the Absolute and the Sacred as such.  The Eternal is like the original abode of the soul which, being lost, is sought by the soul everywhere in its earthly exile.  The joy and peace one experiences upon beholding something beautiful are none other than the mark of eternity as it touches the human soul.  Pontifical man live in time but as a witness to eternity.  Time itself is impregnated by the Eternal in such a way that every moment of time is a gate to the Eternal--the moment, the present, the now belongs to the Eternal itself.  God makes the world in the Eternal Now, the point at which all times are present.  This "now" is to time what the point is to space.

Creation is renewed in every moment.  Time is no more than the repetition of the instant like the line which is formed by the repetition of the spatial point.  During this point in time the whole world returns to the Origin through the movement of contraction and is recreated through expansion like the two phases of breathing.  "At every moment there is a fresh creation and the link between the Creator and His creation is incessantly renewed.  Every instant one universe is annihilated and another resembling it takes its place . . . In consequence of this rapid succession, the spectator is deceived into the belief that the universe is a permanent existence." (Jami)  

Traditional knowledge is always in quest of the rediscovery of that which has been always known but forgotten, that which is to be discovered, for the treasury of knowledge (Logos) lies hidden within the soul of man to be recovered through recollection.  The unknown is not out there beyond the present boundary of knowledge, but at the center of man's being here and now where it has always been.  

The goal of knowledge is union, and it embraces the whole of man's being including the power of love within the human soul.  It is only through realized knowledge that man can reach this truth and taste the actual experience of the One.



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