Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


The Sound of Light's Footsteps

   Transcendence might be characterized as everything that is beyond our understanding: all that we don't know, everything that we've forgotten and are in need of remembering, all that is still potential.
    When we point toward transcendence, we point the direction of travel from our present do-be-and-have world to that which it is possible for us to become, and to that which draws and empowers us to become it.

    Inasmuch as transcendence exceeds our understanding, it is no easy target to point to.  As Heraclitus says in Fragment 123: "The nature of things is in the habit of concealing itself."
    Yet if we bear in mind that transcendence is beyond all that we think we know, it may be possible to catch glimpses of mystery in the mirror of presently existing things.  The warrior artist Miyamoto Musashi put it this way in his A Book of Five Rings:  "What is called the spirit of the void is where there is nothing.  It is not included in man's knowledge.  Of course the void is nothingness.  By knowing things that exist you can know that which does not exist.  This is the void."

    Elusive though the mysterious nature of things may be, as we look back over the course of our history and evolution--­from the origin of our constituent elements in the hearts of long-dead stars to the continual practice of our ancestral line of trading in one form and set of habits for another--­what we view is the fossil remains of the steps we have taken in our pursuit of transcendence.
    Jalaludin Rumi, writing more than seven hundred years ago, stated the intermediacy of our situation like this:  "Originally, you were clay.  From being mineral, you became vegetable.  From vegetable, you became animal, and from animal, man.  During these periods man did not know where he was going, but he was being taken on a long journey nonetheless.  And you have to go through a hundred different worlds yet."

    There is no name that is sufficient to transcendence.  The Tao Te Ching specifically warns, "The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao."
    If this warning is necessary, it is because our present state of being is language based.  Our practice is to approach the hidden nature of things by means of words--mythic metaphors.  As Joseph Campbell, the life-long student of myth, declared late in life:  "My definition of myth now is: a metaphor transparent to transcendence."
    Every period has its own names for transcendence--metaphors which link the most promising, advanced and encompassing knowledge of the time to unknown things, higher possibilities and human becoming.  In these concepts of possibility are to be found the work, the power, and also the limitation of the age.
    As we are told in The Dabistan, attributed to Mohsin Fani, "The sagacious say:  Every era is the epoch of the fame and dominion of a name, and when this epoch expires, it becomes concealed under the name which it had at the epoch of its flourishing state."

    The most potent name of transcendence for the modern Western world has been "science."  This metaphor has been used to include and lay claim to everything that is and also everything that might be.  However, it has been most truly used when those employing it have been able to remember that there is a difference between the actual accomplishments of science and the fathomless mystery of transcendent reality.
    We are reminded of this in The Mysteries of Science by Brian M. Stableford, which concludes:
    "Isaac Newton, the man who synthesized the discoveries of the seventeenth-century physical scientists and astronomers into a new theory of the universe, and provided modern science with its first great edifice of organized knowledge, spoke of himself as follows:  'I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.' 
    "Today, we have a great collection of smoother pebbles, and a fine array of prettier shells--assemblies so great that it is easy to lose ourselves in examination and contemplation of their wonders.  But we must realise, and never forget, that no matter how great the collection grows, the undiscovered ocean will still surround the shores of our imagination."

    It is the directed imagination that stands on the shores of the known and fishes in the waters of the void for whatever seems most urgently needed.  What separates superior scientists from lesser ones is their awareness that "science" has been only one name among many for this process.
    In his essay, "Creativity--Especially in Science," biologist Peter Medawar wrote:  "I feel enlarged, not diminished, by the thought that any truth begins life as an imaginative preconception of what the truth might be, for it puts me on the same footing as all other people who use the imaginative faculty."

    A name loses its power after it has been successful in fishing something that never existed before out of the void and into present being.  Then circumstances become altered and new needs arise.
    It is this process to which Lewis Mumford was referring in his book, The Condition of Man, when he observed:  "At the very moment that mankind as a whole is clothed, fed, sheltered adequately, relieved from want and anxiety, there will arise new conditions, calling equally for struggle, internal if not external conditions, derived precisely from the goods that have been achieved."
    A name has visibly lost its power when it is such a worldly success that it begins to cherish its pebble collections at the expense of the undiscovered ocean, and even to confuse the two.
    Joseph Campbell said: "If the metaphor closes in on itself and says, 'I'm it, the reference is to me or to this event,' then it has closed the transcendence; it's no longer mythological."
    When a particular metaphor of transcendence has become an all-too-concrete actuality and thereby lost its ability to connect us to what is still beyond us, then it must be swapped for another more appropriate word of power through which to approach the true nature of things.
    As Charles Fort reminds us:
    "That firmly to believe is to impede development.
    "That only temporarily to accept is to facilitate."

    When Shams of Tabriz was young, he perceived that the accustomed words of transcendence of his time had turned into idols and that the people around him mouthing these words had lost contact with the higher reality they formerly indicated.  When he set forth to find his own way to truth, he was taken as unmannerly, overbearing and incomprehensible.
    In his Maqalat, Shams tells us:
    "I have been a misfit since childhood.  Nobody used to understand me.  Not even my father, who once said:  'You are not a madman to be put in a madhouse, nor a monk to be put in a hermitage.  I don't know what you are.'
    "I said:  'Listen to this, father.  My case is like that of the duck egg that was put under a hen.  When the egg hatched, the duckling walked about with the mother hen until they came to a pond.  The duckling went into the water.  The hen stayed on the bank.  Now, my dear father, after having tried the sea, I find it my home.  If you choose to stay on the shore, I am not to be blamed.' "

    Names are only names; take them as such.  The ocean is our home--if only we can remember what we've forgotten.
    In The Book of the Damned, Charles Fort wrote:  "Our whole 'existence' is an attempt by the relative to be the absolute, or by the local to be the universal."  And he said further: "A seeker of Truth.  He will never find it.  But the dimmest of possibilities--he may himself become Truth."

Jalaludin Rumi recognized the light of truth in Shams of Tabriz.  He wrote of him:

            Be silent, listen!
            There goes Shams of Tabriz
            Rising from the East
            Maybe we can hear
            The sound of Light's footsteps.

    After he met Shams, Rumi threw over his former life as the leading religious professor of his time.  He took up music and dance, and began to utter poetry and to tell stories.
    Jalaludin Rumi expressed the mystery of transcendence and the challenge it poses as timelessly as anyone ever has.  Over the centuries, he directs this question to us and presents this proposition:

            How long shall we, in the Earth-world, like children
            Fill our laps with dust and stone and scraps?
            Let us leave earth and fly to the heavens,
            Let us leave babyhood and go to the assembly of Man.

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Written 1992.  Posted March 2002.

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