The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society
December 2013 – Vol. 16 Issue 10
On November 17th over 120 people attended a potluck Interfaith Dinner Dialogue sponsored by Fostering Interfaith Relations on the Eastside. Held at Newport Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, it addressed: What happens to us after death, and how does our understanding of this affect how we live? The panel featured members from Islam, the Unification Church, Buddhism, Christianity, Unitarian Universalism, Judaism, Hinduism and Mormonism as well as a hospice nurse. Most panelists admitted that they didn’t know what happened after death but gave their personal viewpoints in light of their tradition. A common theme was focusing on living our lives well today. Some highlights:
The Muslim panelist remarked that we are material and spiritual beings who come from our mother’s womb, where we acquire material form and consciousness, to be born into the womb of Mother Earth for spiritual training, especially to learn to control our lower self. After death, life continues in a different form. Between death and judgment we benefit or suffer from our actions on earth and from the traces we left behind that influence others. On the Day of Judgment we will be raised from the grave for an accounting, the results of which are described metaphorically as Paradise and Hell.
The Buddhist representative asked: Who dies? This faith encourages an open relationship with ourselves so that we approach death with a sense of spaciousness. It holds that we are a union of many elements rather than an immortal self and so should not grasp onto a strong sense of ego. Buddhists are encouraged to think about death in terms of the precious opportunities offered by this short life. What matters is how we live, trying to see more clearly and have compassion for others. Practices such as watching aspects appear and disappear in consciousness are good preparations for death.
For the pastor the Christian afterlife involves resurrection, not the resuscitation of a corpse. It is mysterious: the Gospel stories about Jesus’ resurrection are ambiguous and differ from each other so that its nature can’t be nailed down. Heaven and reunion with loved ones are comforting ideas, but they are speculative; there is no literal hell. Summing up his philosophy, he said he lives and moves in a mysterious presence of Love and trusts that it is enduring and that our life here has deep meaning and continues. Life is fragile and capricious, but he trusts in God and in God’s love.
Judaism holds to an immaterial self and a resurrection, but the logistics are ambiguous. In early texts heaven is called the Garden of Eden in contrast to Gehenna. Sheol, in the bowels of earth, represents oblivion. Only in the 1st century were heaven and hell paired. Whether Resurrection is in the Messianic Era or after it, and only for the Jews or for all the righteous, is unclear. In the following World to Come our earth is renewed. Jewish teachings are always presented as metaphors and storytelling. The most important message in Judaism is to do good things.
The Mormon panelist presented the sweep of their theology. Before we are born we are all children of God, spirit children of heavenly parents with the potential to become like those parents. After we learned all we could in the spirit world, we needed material bodies to see if we could be good when not in the presence of God. After a war in heaven, it was decided that humans in the material worlds would have agency and be able to make mistakes. For people to be purified of their mistakes and return to the spiritual worlds, a savior was necessary. Earth life is a time of testing, and all have an opportunity to receive the Gospel, whether before or after death. Death is the separation of the material body and the spiritual body, which goes to the abode of spirits to await resurrection and final judgment. We judge ourselves and choose how to spend eternity by the realm we are attracted to. As children of God, love is our task, and in time we may fulfill our divine potential and become like God.
After the panel the same issues were discussed at individual tables. It was a welcoming, constructive evening.
On November 26th the Intercultural Forum and the Acacia Foundation sponsored an early Thanksgiving dinner at the University of Washington., where a diverse group of people got acquainted over a delicious Turkish meal – at my table were people from US, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Morocco. The Intercultural Forum is a UW student organization that seeks to provide a platform where people from different cultures, religions and traditions can come together to promote dialogue, friendship, tolerance, and increased cross-cultural understanding.
Finally, on November 27th Branch members attended the 27th annual Thanksgiving Community worship service this year at Temple B’nai Torah, sponsored by the Temple, Cross of Christ Lutheran Church, St. Louise Roman Catholic Church, and The Episcopal Churches of the Holy Apostles and of the Resurrection. A large crowd enjoyed music, reflections, and the opportunity to support Hearts and Hammers, where members from all five spiritual communities work together to make repairs for their less fortunate neighbors. Thanksgiving coincides with the first day of Chanukah this year, so after the service there was the lighting of the first candle and then refreshments and discussion.
What magic communicates itself to a child at his first sight of the Christmas tree? Decked with sparkling lights, colored balls and tinsel, it pierces deep into his consciousness, awakening a mystic wonder and delight. This same wonder and delight are reborn in each one who contemplates the great world-tree that it symbolizes. I wonder how many of us realize to what degree we are indebted to the mystics of antiquity for the beautiful and profound symbology that we perpetuate, often in ignorance of its origin and true meaning?
In long forgotten periods of prehistory the same worldwide symbol of the Tree of Life was used to commemorate matters of mystical, astronomical and religious significance. In the Norse Edda we are reminded of Yggdrasil, the tree of cosmic life, itself undying while on its branches the sparkling galaxies come and go. Within this endless cosmos of ever-changing life, the lesser universal, solar, planetary, even human world-trees, branches of the one everlasting, have their being, each unit a Yggdrasil of its own measure. The stars poised in their orbits with their families of planets, comets and moons, all in harmonious interplay of motion and forces, repelling and attracting, held in perfect equipoise throughout their endless journeyings at incredible speeds: these form in their infinitude the Yggdrasil.
Yggdrasil is called by many names in the Edda: life supporter, shade giver, soil mulcher, noble ash tree, and Odin’s horse. It draws its nourishment from three roots that reach into three regions: the first into Asgard, home of the gods, where lies the fountain of Urd or Origin, watered daily by the three Norns or Fates, whose gaze scans the past, present and future as they spin the threads of destiny. The second root reaches far into the land of the frost-giants, the material spheres, where lies the well of Mimer the “wise giant,” whence spirit draws evolutionary experience. Odin the Allfather, chief of the gods, drinks from it each day; but for the privilege he was forced to forfeit one of his eyes, which then is hidden at the bottom of the well. Consciousness (Odin) sacrifices part of its vision for experience, while Mimer (matter) obtains a partial share of divine insight. The third root reaches to Niflheim, cloud-home, where lies the spring of Hvergälmer. From Hvergälmer flow the twelve rivers of life or classes of beings. There also is found the seething cauldron, storehouse of primordial matter. On the cosmic level these three roots may represent spirit, matter and form.
From Yggdrasil drops the life-giving honey-dew that feeds all living beings. A squirrel runs up and down the trunk of the tree, main¬taining communication between the eagle or sacred cock high in its crown and the serpent at its base. The little rodent suggests life or consciousness, which spans the heights and depths of existence. But this tree of life is not im-mortal. When it is growing and gaining in strength, it is given the name Mjötvidr (measure increasing), but when its prime is past and it begins to wither it is called Mjötudr (measure exhausting). This is in accord with other ancient teachings that divide a life cycle into two arcs, the descent into matter and the re-ascent into spirit. Destructive forces are always at work on the tree. Its leaves are constantly being eaten by four stags, its bark gnawed by two goats, while its roots "are undermined by the serpent Nidhögg” (gnawer from beneath) who, when the cosmic time-clock marks the end of a life cycle, succeeds in overthrowing the mighty ash. At length dormancy prevails during the ensuing rest cycle, and then the tree is renewed. The sibyl of the Völuspá remembers “nine trees of life before this world tree grew from the ground.”
Another name for Yggdrasil, Odin’s gallows, reminds us of the other major Christian holiday. In the Song of the High One, we read: "I know that I hung in the wind-torn tree nine whole nights, spear-pierced, consecrated to Odin, myself to my Self above me in the tree, whose root no one knows whence it sprang. None brought me bread, none served me drink; I searched the depths, spied runes of wisdom; raised them with song, and fell once more thence." This beautifully graphic picture of the crucifixion of spirit in the tree of manifested life antedates in origin the Christian crucifixion by who knows how many ages. It is a universal symbol: the voluntary sacrifice of spiritual life to the evolutionary needs of matter while, as with Mimer’s well, experience in matter is earned by the divine eye of spirit. The nine nights of the spirit may refer to times of manifestation, which are as night to the god within. \
This, then, is the tree whose miniature counterpart we place in the home each year at the winter solstice, when our earth turns at the end of its orbit, to recall to us our part as members of this system of infinite life.