Friday, August 26, 2011

Whose Illusion?

More in touch with the natural world, as on a brief but real Great Lakes vacation, or carefully observing living creatures, as we have been doing here with butterflies—in my own awkward case such experiences invariably produce cosmological notes. And one of these is that the Eastern notion, namely that this world is Maya or illusion, cannot be correct.

I am looking at a wondrous book on Papillons† (in three languages). Here’s a fascinating picture of a certain Grass Moth. And then I’m told that “The Grass Moths, all of which are small, form a large family with a great variety of forms and about 15,000 species worldwide. Many of them can wrap their front wings around their bodies when at rest, so that they are then difficult to make out.” 15,000 species! Of one kind of moth. That’s an illusion? Whose illusion is that? We’re not born knowing such things. Somebody had to count all those varieties of Grass Moths. Well, if Wikipedia has got it right, the Order Lepidoptera, where the Grass Moth belongs, has, all told, an estimated 174,250 species.

On the way home from the pool last night, Brigitte stopped and pointed at a tree. “Look at the bark of that tree,” she said. “Have you ever seen something like that?” We both stared at the trunk of a tree, fascinated now—having passed it at least fifty, sixty times in the past several years.

The notion that the world is an illusion is the interpretation that Eastern traditions give to what is known as the unitive vision. In the West it is interpreted as union with God. Multiple posts on this blog touch on the subject—this experience—which I take to be content-free and energetic in nature. Being that, its interpretation is shaped by the traditions, knowledge, and philosophies of those who have them—therefore by culture.

Western religions are monotheistic; they conceive of the world as created by God. Therefore it can’t be an illusion. An awareness of an enormous contrast, between ordinary experience and this ecstasy, is also voiced in the West, but not quite in the same negative terms as the East has produced. But the Western version, boiled down to its essence, is to say that the world is less than God. The Eastern version drives this to its extreme. The big contrast is that in the West we conceive of God as the absolutely Other—whereas, in the East, the person who has the experience—now of the world, now of Samadhi—is the same person. Therefore it is the experiencer who has the illusion and, for all practical purposes, is also its cause. Logically speaking, he or she is God. But to escape this problem, the East, when pressed to put it into concepts, imagines us as tiny particles of the Ultimate—but still able to create 174,000 species of Lepidoptera? Or is that a collective effort?

The secular version of the experience is Cosmic Consciousness. If the secular has a religious mode at all—and it will have it once it experiences ecstasy—it is pantheistic. Therefore Cosmic Consciousness is a fitting sort of explanation. Oddly enough, the secular version may be the most concise and perhaps accurate; it simply projects energy. In a pantheistic conception, no one is really present, and the Lepidoptera are simply produced by chance variations. That, of course, I find impossible to believe. But that we’re experiencing the cosmos, rather than God, that I think might be right on. Thus I resist assigning the “unitive experience” any transcendental rank. It is content-free but very energetic. The creation, meanwhile, in its extraordinary diversity and intelligent arrangement, tells me that there is more to the world than merely an overwhelming feeling. Ponder the following quote from the same book, this time illustrating two butterflies mating, rear touching rear:
With flying insects which comprise many species, such as dragonflies and butterflies, nature has to make sure that mating cannot take place between representatives of different species. This is achieved by extreme differentiation of the exterior genitalia, so that male and female organs fit together like key and lock. These distinctive features provide the lepidopterist with accurate classifying aids and help him to distinguish between otherwise very similar species. [Papillons, p. 40]
Zauberwelt der Schmetterlinge, The Magic of Butterflies, Papillons, by Gunter Steinbach and Werner Zepf, Sigloch, 1998. The image shown (own photography) is of the Common Buckeye, Junonea coenia, not of the Grass Moth. The Buckeye is a butterfly that looks a little like a moth because of its brown coloration.

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