When I think of the word sacred, Oneness beyond description comes to mind, the sourceless source of all. Everything is rooted in this and, therefore, all is sacred. How then can we understand the great suffering caused by man and nature, and why it occurs?
A more common usage of sacred is suggestive -- to venerate or to consecrate something as holy or divine. The words sacred or holy are often applied to places of mystery, sacrifice, and death, including ancient sites, fields of battle, or even the grounds of the World Trade Center. When we think of it, life on earth is composed of mystery, sacrifice, and loss of life -- born into this world, we must die from it -- and from this reasoning alone earth and our lives are sacred.
How can we understand catastrophic events that produce so much misery and suffering? In January, following the tsunami in Asia that claimed the lives of over a quarter of a million people, the media enlisted religious teachers from various faiths to explain catastrophic events from their tradition's point of view. One particularly intriguing idea that emerged is found in the Hindu trimurti -- Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva representing the creator, the sustainer, and the destroyer/regenerator. Isn't destroyer/regenerator an interesting juxtaposition? For example, the egg is destroyed so the chick may emerge, old ideas are destroyed so that new thought-life may awaken. At first it may be hard to accept that difficult, painful experiences have good in them; but embracing the dark as well as the light side of ourselves is to acknowledge our wholeness and our reasons for humility.
Other commentators see "God's will" in natural disasters, or deaths from diseases such as cancer or AIDS. Consider the following from the King James Version of the Old Testament:
I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things. -- Isaiah 45:7
How many of us regard our God as the source of evil? Yet how else could it be for an infinite deity? No deity is infinite if it excludes evil. But would any father or creator worthy of respect, let alone divinity, willfully murder his children? Perhaps it is time to reconsider the nature of God, even to question the notion of a "supreme being" in an infinite universe.
The thought of Divinity springs from the intuition that consciousness is unlimited in potential; that, in an infinite universe, there must be an unending hierarchy of beings whose consciousnesses, by great magnitudes, transcend our own. Hence our desire to emulate this transcendental awareness as we aim toward something greater, something beyond our own emotional and personal nature. To emphasize this surpassing of human qualities, divine awareness is sometimes termed "unconsciousness." It may be difficult to comprehend deity as unconscious, perhaps because we associate unconsciousness with ignorance or unawareness. But how else can we describe the state of a pure and high being expressing itself as the steady, all-pervasive cosmic mind or "laws of nature": the foundation and background through and in which all live and move and have their being? Is a person who is asleep conscious as you and I ordinarily think of consciousness? Is a person in the deepest prayer or meditation "conscious"? They may so transcend everyday consciousness that their state is completely beyond us, and in that condition they are unconscious of the daily events around them. In like manner the manifested universe -- inner and outer, visible and invisible -- may represent the profound meditation of a being or beings, the essence of whom we may call pure Being.
Ecology demonstrates that all living beings are connected, and the principle of cause and effect is the basis of all scientific reasoning and proof. If we live near a riverbank subject to hundred-year floods, we might note that there is a cycle at work here as well as a cause-and-effect relationship with our actions. Cause and effect is how some describe karma, but many have an impression of karma not unlike traditional thoughts about God, as though karma itself rewards and punishes. When the flood comes we may say that it is "bad" karma, and that the people injured must also have been bad. But while causes and effects are very real, natural cycles are not willful, personal, or punishing.
The earth as a living being moves, its atmosphere changes. All terrestrial beings are aspects of this living earth intimately connected with it and with one another. What we do affects the earth and what the earth does affects us. We should not consider this lightly, for these effects begin inwardly and move outwardly, both physically and metaphysically. The spiritual component of the equation is not an extra-cosmic deity punishing humanity, but rather the way we ourselves deal with a living, psychically-dynamic world in constant change and evolution. To me, the only personally willful aspect in natural tragedy is human action and response.
Mankind plays a role in the evolution of our world in its wholeness, including both matter and our powerful inner life -- the sacred element. Since the awakening of mind long ages ago, we have become unruly, willful agents in nature, both heroes and victims of our own co-creative power -- the imagination. We bring about our own terrors and bliss, whether in our consciousness or through relationships with other beings and the living earth. We can see this in war, which is a willed catastrophe, though in some sense it is a natural disaster because mankind is part of nature, not separate from it, so that all we do is natural. Moreover, war is always a disaster for nature. We rarely consider the loss of animal lives, the destruction of environment, or the loss of human beings as affecting nature; but portions of nature are destroyed and harmed in many ways, sometimes irreversibly, and perhaps on many more levels than we credit.
Mankind as a self-conscious element of earth-nature is a powerful dynamo of psychological, vital, and astral forces. We live in harmony or in conflict with the laws of nature. To the degree we fail to understand these laws, we continually come up against them. Perhaps in the same way that an earthquake results from the building pressure of resistance along fault lines, or that lightning results from an imbalance of electrical charges between earth and atmosphere, so the thought-life of humanity (another kind of force of nature) becomes out of balance with, or resistant to, the state of cosmic mind and the evolutionary forces at work to such an extent that an adjustment is needed. But there seems always a pull toward growth of awareness. The adjustments made by famine, disease, terrestrial changes, and even war, illustrate the fallacy of human beings as separate from nature and one another, and highlight the need to work together selflessly, with compassion for all life -- fundamental keys to awakening the greater capacities within.
How is it that mankind has repeatedly survived catastrophic events? How have the worst elements of mankind always failed to overcome humanity? What prevents us from careening into oblivion through greed, violence, and ignorance of the laws of nature? Is it that we, like all other beings, are expressions of cosmic mind, and thus at the heart of our being have an infinite capacity for selflessness and altruism? Always from the great tragedies has arisen a painful, if imperceptible, growth in awareness of our connection to others and our accountability for the events in our lives, a gradual awakening to self-sacrifice, compassion, and the need to work with nature. Regardless of the temporary outcome of any event, our focus in life can move beyond the idea that some outside superhuman agency is punishing us, and toward responsibility for how we respond to and grow from our sacred life-experiences.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2005; copyright © 2005 Theosophical University Press)