The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
November 2012 – Vol. 15 Issue 9
Polls indicate that over 4% of Europeans and Americans have had near-death experiences (NDEs), mainly among cardiac arrest and coma patients. The current scientific model, which holds that consciousness is a product of the brain, has trouble explaining NDE phenomena. Dutch cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel in Consciousness beyond Life points out that there is no scientific proof that the brain is the source of consciousness; rather, this view is an assertion used as an axiom. Dr. van Lommel was himself a materialist until he read about NDEs in the 1980s and, skeptical, decided to ask his patients who had been in cardiac arrest if they remembered anything from their period of unconsciousness. To his surprise, quite a few did, which prompted him to undertake a systematic, rigorous study in Dutch hospitals published in 2001 in the medical journal The Lancet. He found that “consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period … when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.”
In trying to understand how lucid consciousness can exist under these conditions, as well as events such as out-of-body experiences, life review, and instantaneous contact with others at a distance, Dr. van Lommel first explains the inadequacies of the materialistic explanations, with the exception of a possible role for the brain chemical DMT, best known from psychotropic plants. One of his most interesting proposals is that consciousness is non-local: that it is everywhere and unlimited by time and space, pointing as an analogy to entangled particles in quantum physics which act as though they are in instantaneous contact irrespective of distance.
In dealing with people who have survived clinical death, he advises asking if they remember anything from the period of unconscious, and if they do, listening respectfully to what they say, letting them know that such events are common, and putting them in touch with NDE resources. Reluctance to speak of such experiences, for fear of ridicule or because they have not been taken seriously, often delays both the integration of near-death experiences and their positive impact.
On October 11 the Muslim Association of Puget Sound in Redmond presented an interfaith evening featuring dinner, the PBS film “Mohammed and His Legacy,” and a question period covering wide-ranging subjects. The film was timely, given recent violence over a YouTube video disparaging Mohammed, violence most Muslims condemn. Mohammed’s life is the example believers seek to follow, and he was not revengeful toward those who insulted or reviled him. The film mentioned how, once Muslims controlled Mecca, Mohammed granted amnesty to all citizens, even those who had plotted to kill him and exiled him. Another time, Mohammed presented his message to tribal leaders at Ta’if, and afterwards the people had their children stone him so that blood ran into his sandals. When asked if he wanted God to destroy the city for this persecution, he replied that “I rather hope that Allah will raise from among their descendants people as will worship Allah the One . . .” Again, each day in Medina as he passed in the street an elderly woman at a second floor window would yell abuse and throw garbage at him. One day she wasn’t at the window when he passed by, and he stopped to inquire about her. Finding she was ill, he went up to make sure she was all right, which touched her deeply. A commentary says: “he never rebuked the ignorant and those who caused him harm, nor did he ever avenge anybody on grounds of personal hostility.… He never became furious over his harassers, rather he prayed for their guidance.” This is the example Muslims seek to act upon, though it is often difficult, as it is for Christians or Buddhists to follow the example of their founder.
This issue also arose at the Acacia Foundation’s Seventh Annual Dialogue and Friendship Dinner on October 27 at the University of Washington Club. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol spoke on the Muslim case for liberty. His excellent book, Islam without Extremes, outlines the diversity of thought in the Islamic world throughout its history. It argues that a government that neither favors nor represses any religion is the most favorable for both religious and secular people and organizations. The evening was most enjoyable, especially getting to know and exchange ideas with the wide variety of people around the dinner tables.
This year the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca fell in October, and the Seattle Ahmadiyya Muslim Community invited non-Muslims to join them on October 26 for their Eid ul-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) held in Bellevue. This celebration marks the end of Hajj rituals at Mecca, rituals said to be based on those conducted by Mohammed on his last visit to the city and which recall events in the life of Abraham as told in the Quran. The Eid commemorates Abraham’s obedience to God in being willing to sacrifice his first-born son. Muslims around the world gather on the first morning of this festival for communal prayer, a sermon on sacrifice, greeting community members, and then partake of a meal featuring meat from an animal sacrificed for this occasion. Branch members enjoyed getting to know some of their Muslim neighbors from around the Seattle area at this religious festival.
Sikhism is an egalitarian path of devotion to the creator of the universe. Like Buddhism and Jainism, it stems from Hinduism. It shares the basic Hindu framework that the spiritual progress of each being takes place over a series of reincarnations in which the karma made in each life determines the quality and content of future rebirths. Spiritual liberation means ending suffering by stopping this cycle of births and deaths. According to the Sikhs, the soul then exists forever in the divine presence in a state of bliss.
Monotheism, the existence of one sole supreme Reality, is central to Sikhism. Guru Nanak called it Akal Purakh, the Timeless or Eternal Being. Akal Purakh is beyond birth and death, self-manifesting and self-revealing, without fear or enmity. Though beyond gender, it is traditionally referred to in the masculine. Akal Purakh creates and sustains the universe, transcendent yet all-pervading. He is immanent in every aspect of manifestation and therefore in each human being. Akal Purakh reveals himself through his manifestations, which Sikhs speak of collectively as the divine Name. Through the divine Name around and within us, Akal Purakh speaks the divine Word which imparts the message of liberation to those whose devotion allows them to perceive it. In this way Akal Purakh is the eternal Guru. The ten Sikh Gurus and the holy scripture Adi Granth act as the “voice” of this eternal Guru. Sikhs today more often use the name Vahiguru, “Praise to the Guru,” to refer to the supreme Reality.
The universe reflects the divine order, and emancipation comes from bringing oneself into harmony with this order. By constant “remembrance” of the divine Name – that is, awareness of the supreme Reality revealed everywhere within oneself and in nature, physically and psychologically – the devotee’s life comes to reflect the divine harmony. There are several ways to create this constant awareness, such as the repetition of mantras, mediation, singing hymns to the divine, attentiveness to the divine in nature and other people, and mystical concentration. But liberation does not require rituals, pilgrimages, asceticism or any other outward religious observances. According to the Gurus, the path is a strictly inward one of devotional awareness best followed in the performance of daily duties in the context of family and livelihood.
What prevents human beings, as manifestations of the divine, from attaining liberation? They are blinded by inborn self-concern and the impulse to seek personal gratification. Karma from self-centered activity binds them in the cycle of birth and death. But Akal Purakh utters enough of the divine Name in every human heart/mind/spirit, and by listening to this immanent divine voice and seeing the divine Name manifested everywhere, devotees can attune themselves with the divine, overcome self-concern, and then act in ways that make karma that leads to liberation. Even in this lifetime, everyone has the potential to ascend to the highest Realm of Truth to remain forever in the presence of Divinity.
The Sikh Gurus emphasized that all human beings are one family. Unless the divine is seen in every human heart, Sikhs believe, divinity cannot be found in one’s own. This teaching was a strong reaction against Hindu doctrines that held that members of the lowest caste, outcastes, and women could not reach spiritual liberation in this life. Only in a higher-caste male body could this be done. By contrast, Sikhism teaches the equality of men and women, with women allowed to lead any and all religious activities. The Gurus condemned sati (burning living widows on their husband’s pyre), female infanticide, and dowries and encouraged the remarriage of widows who wished to do so. They equally condemned any religious implications of social distinctions and the concept of ritual pollution, that is, that contact with certain people or things prevents people from participating in spiritual life until they have been ritually purified. For Guru Nanak, spiritual obstructions are “only washed away by knowledge of God,” not by rituals. While these egalitarian teachings are carried out in the context of religious practice, Sikhs have not yet broken the hold of caste and gender discrimination in their secular community life. Pressure from surrounding society and extended family, along with the frailty of human nature, makes change difficult and slow.
Sikhs hold that followers of any religion can achieve spiritual liberation, and that all people actually worship the same supreme Being, whatever names they may give it. Guru Nanak considered Sikhism a path less encumbered with spiritual distractions and barriers, a slow but sure way that consists of recognizing the supreme Reality in everyone and everything, and then acting on the constant loving awareness of this fact in one’s daily life in the human community.