Language of the Self

Language of the Self
Frithjof Schuon  1959


Arabesque from Prayer Stones    (click on image to enlarge)

Principals and Criteria of Art
Man, by his theomorphism [being a form depicted by God] is at the same time a work of art and also an artist; a work of art because he is an "image" ["made in the image of God"] and an artist because this image is that of Divine Artist: Man alone among earthly beings can think, speak and produce works.

In primordial periods art always was limited to either objects of ritual or working tools and household objects, but even such tools and object were, like the activities they implied, eminently symbolical and so connected with ritual and with the realm of the sacred.  

To a great extent sacred art ignorers the aesthetic aim; its beauty arises above all  from the exactitude of its symbolism and from its usefulness for purposes of ritual and contemplation, and only secondarily from the imponderables of personal intuition.  Aesthetic quality cannot be a primary consideration; beauty is everywhere, beginning with nature and with man himself.  This must not, however, make one lose sight of the fact that a feeling for beauty, and so also a need for beauty, is natural in normal man and is indeed the very condition behind the detachment of the traditional artist in regard to the aesthetic quality of sacred work.

What is the sacred in relation to the world?  It is the interference of the uncreate in the created, of the eternal in time, of the infinite in space, of the Supra-formal in forms; it is the mysterious introduction into one realm of existence of a presence which in reality contains and transcends that realm and could cause it to burst asunder in a sort of divine explosion.  The sacred is the incommensurable, the transcendent, hidden within a fragile form belonging to this world.

The supernatural value of sacred art arises from the fact that it conveys and communicates an intelligence which is lacking in the collectivity.  Like virgin nature it has a quality and function of intelligence which it manifests through beauty because in essence it belongs to the formal order;  sacred art is the form of the Supra-formal, it is the image of the Uncreate, the language of Silence.  But as soon as artistic initiative becomes detached from tradition, which links it to the sacred, this guarantee of intelligence fails and stupidity shows through everywhere.  

An art is sacred, not through the personal intention of the artist, but through its content, its symbolism and its style, that is, through objective elements.

Naturalistic religious art makes truth hard to believe and virtue odious . . .  naturalism compels the artist to represent what he could not have seen as if he had seen it, and to manifest sublime virtue as if he himself possessed it.

Art will be more inward and more profound than verbal expositions, and this explains the central function which a sacred image can assume.

One of the most powerfully original forms of sacred art is Taoist landscape painting; the paintings externalize a metaphysic and a contemplative state: they spring, not from space, but from the "void"; their theme is essentially "mountain and water" and with this they combine cosmological and metaphysical aims. 

Regarding the non-figurative or abstract arts of Islam, its origin is issued from the sensory form of the revealed Book, that is from the interlaced letters of the verses of the Koran, and also -- paradoxical though this may seem -- from the forbidding of images.  This restriction in Islamic art, by eliminating certain creative possibilities, intensified others, the more so since it was accompanied by express permission to represent plants; hence the capital importance of arabesques, of geometrical and botanical decorative motifs.  

In Islam the love of beauty compensates for the tendency to austere simplicity; it lends elegant forms to simplicity and partially cloths it in a profusion of precious and abstract lacework.  "God is Beautiful," said the Prophet, "and He loveth beauty."  

[A related footnote:  It is not the sole obligation of art to come down towards the common people; it should also remain faithful to its intrinsic truth in order to allow men to rise towards that truth.]

 Art is an activity, an exteriorization, and thus depends by definition on a knowledge that transcends it and gives it order; apart from such knowledge, art has no justification: it is knowledge which determines action, manifestation, form, and not the reverse.

It is necessary to relearn how to see and to look, and to understand that the sacred belongs to the field of the immutable, and not to that of change.  


The Sacred Pipe of the Red Indians   [Note:  Schuon became close friends with several American Indians and eventually was officially received into the Sioux tribe.]  
Wakan-Tanka (the "Great Spirit") is God not only as Creator and Lord but also as Impersonal Essence.  Wakan-Tanka can also be translated by "Great Mystery" or "Great Mysterious Power".  Wakan-Tanka is beyond all manifestation, and even beyond all quality or determination whatsoever.

It is through the animal species and the phenomena of Nature that the Indian contemplates the angelic Essences and the Divine Qualities.  Joseph Epes Brown writes: "For the red man, as of course for all traditional peoples, every created object is important simply because they know the metaphysical correspondence between this world and the 'Red World.'  No object is for them what it appears to be, but it is simply the pale shadow of a Reality.  It is for this reason that every created object is waken, holy, and has a power according to the liftiness of the spiritual reality that it reflects; thus . . . every object is treated with respect, for the particular 'power' that it possesses can be transferred into man--of course they know that everything in the Universe has its counterpart in the soul of man.  The Indian humbles himself before the whole of creation, especially when 'lamenting' (that is, when he ritually invokes the 'Great Spirit' in solitude), because all visible things were created before him and, being older than he, deserve respect.  But, although the last created things, man is also the first, since he alone may know the Great Spirit (Wakan-Tanka)."

This will help to explain in what way every "typical" thing, that is, everything that manifests an "essence" is wakan, sacred.  Wakan-Tanka is the Principle; namely, what is absolutely "Self".  Wakan is what enables us to apprehend directly the Divine Reality; a man is wakan when his soul manifests the Divine with the spontaneous and flashing evidence of the wonders of Nature; the elements, the sun, lightning, the eagle . . . 

As to the knowledge of the "Great Spirit" which man alone of all earthly creation may attain to, Black Elk once defined it as follows: "I am blind and do not see the things of this world; but when the Light comes from Above, it enlightens my heart and I can see, for the Eye of my heart sees everything.  The heart is a sanctuary at the center ow which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the Eye.  This is the Eye of the Great Spirit by which He sees all things and through which we see Him.  If the heart is not pure, the Great Spirit cannot be seen. . . The man who is thus pure contains the Universe in the pocket of his heart."

The Four Ribbons of the Sacred Pipe 
Black Elk, in his first book, Black Elk Speaks, writes:  I fill this sacred Pipe with the bark of the red willow; but before we smoke it, you must see how it is made and what it means.  These four ribbons hanging here on the stem are the four quarters of the universe.  The black one is west where the thunder beings live to send us rain; the white one for the north, whence comes the great white cleansing wind; the red one for the east, whence springs the light and where the morning star lives to give men wisdom; the yellow for the south, whence come the summer and the power to grow.  But these four spirits are only one Spirit after all, and this eagle feather here is for that One."

The West is Revelation and also Grace; the North Wind purifies and gives strength; from East comes Light, that is Knowledge, and these according to the Indian perspective, go together with Peace; the South is the source of Life and Growth, the way of welfare and felicity.  The Universe thus depends on four primordial determinations--Water, Cold, Light, Warmth.  The Calumet, or Sacred Pipe Ritual shows clearly that the cardinal points (the four "cosmic Places") represent the four essential Divine Manifestations.

The Wind
The wind is the "breath" of this earthly world in which we live, so that it represents the "breathing" of the cosmos.  The breath is in a certain sense the vehicle of the "soul" or the "spirit" whence the etymological connection between these words in many languages; but it is also the active vehicle of life, for it nourishes and purifies the blood, life's passive, lower vehicle.  The breath then, is thus both "soul" and "life" and thus it is made in the image of the Divine Word whose creative Breath made man himself.

The Sacred Smoke
In the rite of the Calumet man represents the state of individuation; space represents the Universal into which what is individual has--after being transmuted--to be reabsorbed; the smoke disappearing into space, with which it finally identifies itself, exemplifies well this transformation from the hard, opaque or formal into the dissolved, transparent or formless; it exemplifies at the same time the unreality of the ego and so the world which, spiritually, is identical with the human microcosm.  

But this resorption of the smoke into space (which stands for God) transcribes at the same time the Mystery of "Identity"; it is only in illusion that man is a volume cut out of space and isolated in it: in reality he "is" that space and he must "become what he is," as the Hindu Scriptures say.  By absorbing, together with the sacred smoke, the perfume of Grace, and by breathing himself out with it towards the unlimited, man spreads himself supernaturally throughout the Divine Space, so to speak: but at the same time God is represented by the fire which consumes the tobacco.  The tobacco itself represents man, or from the macrocosmic point of view, the Universe; space is here incarnate in the fire of the Calumet, jus as, according to another symbolism, the cardinal points are united in the Central Fire.

The Circle
According to Black Elk, "Everything an Indian does is done in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles and everything tries to be round.  In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation, and so long as the hoop was unbroken, the people flourished.  The flowering tree was the living center of the hoop, and the circle of the four quarters nourished it. . . Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars.  the wind, in it greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. . . Our tipis were round like the nests of birds, and these were always set in a circle, the nations's hoop, a nest of many nests, where the Great Spirit meant us to hatch our children." 

All the static forms of existence were determined by a concentric archetype: centered in this qualitative, "totemic," almost impersonal ego, the Indian tends towards independence  and so towards indifference with regard to the outward world; he surround himself with silence as with a magic circle, and this silence is sacred as being the vehicle of the heavenly influences.  It is from this silence -- of which the natural support is solitude -- that the Indian draws his spiritual strength; his ordinary prayer is unvoiced" what it requires is not thought but consciousness of the Spirit, and this consciousness is immediate and formless like the vault of heaven.  

Unlike Christianity, which establishes the Celestial on the earthly plane and builds sanctuaries in the most static of materials, stone, the religion of the Indians integrates the earthly (the spatial) with the omnipresent Celestial, and that is why the red man's sanctuary is everywhere; that is also why the earth should remain intact, virgin and sacred, as when it left the Divine Hands--since only  what is pure reflects the Eternal.  The Indian is nothing of a "pantheist." nor does he imagine for one moment that God is in the world; but he knows that the world is mysteriously plunged in God.


Gnosis, Language of the Self
For the gnostic or intellective man God is "I" -- or "Self" -- and the ego is  "he" or "other."  Few men have the gift of impersonal contemplation--for it is of this e are speaking--such as allows God to thin in us, if such an expression be permissible.  

Esoterism is  concerned with the nature of things and not merely with our human eschatology; it views the Universe not from the human standpoint but from the "standpoint" of God.  As a doctrine it communicates the very essence of our universal position, our situation between nothingness and Infinity.  The truth for the esoterist is that only the divine manifestation is the Self.

The Koranic affirmation that "God alone is God" means that there is no Self but the Self;  there is no 'me' except it be "I" -- therefore no real or positive ego except the Self.  The Profit himself enunciated the same mystery in the following terms: "He who has seen me, has seen the Truth (God)."  That is to say: God cannot be seen except through His receptacle or, in a more general but less direct sense, through His symbol.

God is "Light" 'before' He is "Heat," if it may be so expressed; gnosis "precedes" love, or rather, love "follows" gnosis, since the latter includes love after its own fashion, whereas love is not other than the beatitude that has "come forth" from gnosis.

The question "why does evil exist?" amounts to asking why there is an existence; the serpent is to be found in Paradise because Paradise exists.  Paradise without the serpent would be God.  Man suffers because he wishes to be "self" in opposition to "the Self."  Man must lose his life, the life of the ego, in order to keep it, the life of the Self.  The Self became ego in order that the ego might become the Self.  The Self alone is "itself"; the ego is "other."

A distinction has to be made between terrestrial thought and celestial thought, given rise by that which is our eternal substance and finding its end beyond ourselves, and in the final analysis, in the Self.   Reason is something like a "profane intelligence".  

The kernel of light at the center of the current of forms is essentially the "remembrance of God"--which in the end demands all that we are.  


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