Oneness and the Great Chain of Being

By Alan E. Donant

The theosophic philosophy posits that life is everywhere. Every mathematical point in every dimension of space, inner and outer, is an evolving consciousness, so that from the grandest to the most infinitesimal we see a great chain of being. But is the Great Chain of Being a great chain of beings? If we admit that only Oneness exists, separate beings can only be reflections of the One passing through conditioned existence, like the many colors visible when sunlight passes through a prism. What we call reality may actually be phenomena playing through and upon phenomenon.

We struggle to understand the infinite nature of the Real through our limited senses and often undisciplined reason. If we stretch our thoughts slightly further than usual, however, new images of reality emerge. For instance, we do not recognize a table as a being, though a wooden table may be thought of as formed from the body of a being. Whether of natural or artificial substance, it is hard to see a table as conscious, even though it is an expression of consciousness -- the human consciousness that conceived it. A table appears solid, yet we know it is an aggregate of moving molecules that creates the appearance of solidity to our senses. The molecules are made of atoms mainly composed of space. We could say the table is made up of countless atomic lives, but aren't these, like the table, forms made up of yet smaller expressions: first electrons, neutrons, and protons, then subatomic and sub-subatomic particles? Perhaps the sub-subatomic particles themselves are composed of yet smaller forms. Things certainly are not what we first think them to be.

Are our bodies different in principle from the table? They are an amalgamation of smaller parts: first hair, skin, stomach, spleen, fluids, and bones, in turn composed of cells consisting of yet smaller units, made up of atoms, which are formed of atomic and subatomic particles, etc. And aren't our bodies shaped by an expression of consciousness -- the human? Unlike the table, our body seems to have an active, self-expressive consciousness animating and moving through it -- but "through it" suggests a source beyond the body. If a table and a human body are in structure so much alike, is any body or thing more than an expression or vehicle of consciousness that, from one point of view, is itself not conscious? Is what we call human consciousness a complex series of reflections -- self-reflections -- of the one self or consciousness, perhaps something like a house of mirrors? Upon careful examination it seems that what we call a separate being is more accurately a phenomenon of yet smaller phenomena; the deeper we look, the more no-thing we find. Is all an illusion or maya?

once admit that our planet and ourselves are no more creations than the iceberg . . . but that both planet and man are -- states for a given time; that their present appearance -- geological and anthropological -- is transitory and but a condition concomitant of that stage of evolution at which they have arrived in the descending cycle -- and all will become plain. You will easily understand what is meant by the "one and only" element or principle in the universe . . . from the emanations of which spring worlds, beings and things. You will comprehend the reason why the first philosopher proclaimed ALL -- Maya -- but that one principle, which rests during the maha-pralayas only -- the "nights of Brahm." --The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, Letter 13, pp. 72-3

We come, then, to Oneness; but what does it mean? Are we beings who come from one source, or reflections not necessarily coming from it? Or are we all -- humans, animals, plants, atoms, planets, galaxies, visible and invisible -- the One? Such viewpoints change the way we look at our world. While all three perspectives apply, I believe that fundamentally we are the One. Or more accurately, we are the One limited in action by a certain set of conditions, interacting with other limited beings and conditions that are also the One.

So whence our world system? An infinite universe must have what we can only call a sourceless source, something beyond our imagination and comprehension but philosophically and logically necessary. No description does it justice, as all words limit it; we may describe it as THAT. From this boundlessness emanates the Ideal, sometimes called the first Logos. At this stage there is an active focus of rootconsciousness acting on passive root-matter. This unmanifested manifestation becomes the partially manifested or second Logos, as active mind awakens passive matter. The ultimate product is manifested manifestation or the third Logos, the root of the nearly infinite variety of possibilities we call the cosmos.

In an infinite universe of oneness, how can we be anything but lesser, "fuzzier" images of the One? We do not become the One, go to the One, merge with the One; we already are the One. This proposition gives new insight into not only who I am, but also who you are and who every other being is. In times of personal conflict, we may feel moved to ask: What is going on? What am I defending? Of civilization we may ask: What is education? What is war? How do we see death? What is the destiny of humanity? What are greed and lust? How do we end suffering? The context of oneness gives such issues a new range of considerations.

For religion, a major source of human separateness and violence, the gods of mankind are emanations of the One, like everything else. Our perceptions of them are filtered through the veils of the mind and the human condition, distorting their reality. It would seem, however, that the transcendent unknowable, the sourceless source, is the most proper recipient of mankind's reverence. That every religion is neither all right nor all wrong is a position that induces a humility that would be especially beneficial in today's world of extremism.

Science as presently constituted limits itself to phenomena rather than their ultimate causes. Yet even phenomena are a pale image of reality, and since the 19th century some scientists have begun to think that the sources of reality may well be beyond their instruments but not necessarily beyond their mathematics. The "holy grail" of modern science is the Grand Unified Theory, a form of Oneness. A leading contender today is string theory, an elegant mathematical and conceptual formulation that proposes that everything in the universe is at its core a vibration. From the countless possibilities of vibrations arise the vast variety of the universe. Vibration that produces forms is reminiscent of ancient ideas about active root-consciousness arising from the unknowable.

For culture and society, the implications of humans as conditioned aspects of the One, rather than as separate, are profound. Each of us may be a facet of awakening cosmic mind. Our current limited mental capacity creates a shortness of vision unable to grasp the awe-full truth, though intuition hints at it. Working together, accepting one another as co-elements of the One, transforms our relationships with family, friends, communities, and nations. Just as our own thoughts fight among themselves, so people will come into conflict as well. However, from mental clashes we gain an understanding far greater than if we allowed no new thoughts to enter our mind. Similarly, we lose a chance to know Reality more fully when we reject out of hand certain people or groups of people.

Our current awareness of personal identity and our attendant thoughts are distorted images of reality, as are all manifestations. But reality is as near as our thoughts, which affect us in two ways. First, they create complex self-built shrouds that enwrap our true nature or the One. The nearer we gravitate to the One, the clearer our thoughts and the closer to original consciousness we become. Second, culture and society are influenced by a self-feeding loop formed of these veils. We think, and then we do; others pick up on the thought and may also do, influencing our thoughts again. One has only to look at pop-culture fads to see this process in action. But in spite of these veils, we experience the telltale presence of consistency or Law: emanating our own shrouds is the same in principle as the unknowable emanating the cosmos; and like the re-emanation of the cosmos, human thoughts are the stuff of vibrations/consciousness. Like the initial forms coming from root-matter and root-consciousness, our thoughts produce vast hosts of beings that "people" our world. In becoming awake to what we think and do through conscious living, we discover our link to the Ineffable.

If we are asleep in our habit-thoughts, unable to break through our self-created veils, we perpetuate separateness and ignorance, the principal causes of suffering. Even a few people thinking toward the unthinkable, however, breaks old habits of thought and helps awaken humanity on its evolutionary journey. Looking at the greater potential within others, we can find within every man and woman the aspect that yearns to be free, which desires peace and understanding. We may then speak to what is universal within them, which is striving to come to the fore of human consciousness, and in so doing speak to That.

 (From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2004; copyright © 2004 Theosophical University Press)

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A branch cut off from its neighbor branch cannot but be cut off from the whole plant. In the very same way a man severed from one man has fallen away from the fellowship of all men. -- Marcus Aurelius