Many of us have forgotten that the vertical dimension of life has been central to the thinking and experience of people of intelligence and sensitivity in all cultures for most of recorded history. There has been an enduring universal sense that consciousness is a continuum of inter-penetrating layers and levels, endlessly visualized and mythologized as a ladder, a silver cord, a tree, a bridge, or a spiral. The vast majority of individuals and communities in the past have, in the main, lived their lives within this context of the overwhelming mystery and magic of the heights and depths of being. Spirits, communities of ancestors, saints (and demons) have been a major part of their day-to-day reality. While there are perhaps more people of different cultures who share this understanding today than we realize, still the dominant thinking around the world shuts out and represses any sense of a grand hierarchical chain of being.
The idea of a hierarchy of consciousness and of being is pervasive in religious traditions. Huston Smith, the respected author on the world's religions, writes that all the major religions offer a view of reality as "a hierarchy of being and knowing.1 A. Coomeraswamy, the Sri Lankan philosopher who was influential in introducing Western intellectuals to Eastern thought in the early twentieth century, pointed to a "hierarchy of types or levels of consciousness extending from animal to deity" as a central aspect of the world’s great religions.2 Much later in the century, Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan lama who did so much to popularize Tibetan Buddhism in the West (and incidentally who introduced a wide audience to the Shamballa vision), wrote of "a hierarchy of earth, human, heaven" as the fundamental idea uniting all philosophies of the East.3
As Ken Wilber points out, the wisdom of West and East speaks of reality as a continuum of being: matter or the 'insentient and non-conscious' is at one end and 'spirit' or 'godhead' or the 'superconscious' at the other end. "Arrayed in between are the other dimensions of being arranged according to their individual degrees of reality (Plato), actuality (Aristotle), inclusiveness (Hegel), consciousness (Aurobindo), clarity (Leibniz), embrace (Plotinus), or knowingness (Garab Dorje)."4
It is no accident that the post-war decades during which we have poisoned, polluted and destroyed much of the natural world have also been the decades in which we have lost so much of our connection with and respect for higher levels of being and layers of awareness.
It seems to me that the central issue in the spiritual crisis of our times is our broken relationship with the realms of divinity and sacredness—the higher planes of spirit and the Buddha nature that lie within us. We are challenged to readdress the heights of the transpersonal. This does not mean a return to the past. We cannot, and would not want to, deny all that has been learnt from our new understanding of the outer world (from the revelations of the microscope, or the telescope; from quantum physics or systems theory; from our understandings of ecology and above all from the respect for the life and integrity and rights of every single individual human being). When we approach the great chain of being now, we do so in the light of an egalitarian spirit which respects the humanity of ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Thoughtforms of a hierarchy that oppresses and represses all our humanity belong to the Piscean era. We are entering Aquarius and are able to see that the heights of hierarchy give us a perspective (a vision that comes with altitude) in which we see ‘above’ and ‘below’ as part of one interconnected whole. When we stand on the peak of a mountain on a clear day and look down into a valley, the ‘downness’ of the valley, or the fact that it may be in the shade, relative to the open sky that so dominates the view from the mountain top, is not in any way a judgment of the valley as being somehow ‘less.’ It simply is what it is—a valley.
My understanding of the vision presented in the series of books by Alice Bailey and the Tibetan is that a diverse body of Great Ones, a ‘Society of Illumined Minds,’ look upon the human realm just as our own soul looks upon the personality—with endless compassion and understanding and with a purpose of fostering everything in the worlds of time and space that enables these realms to reflect, in human ways, a measure of the beauty, light and integrity of the higher parts of our nature.
The Ageless Wisdom suggests that Great Ones honored in all the religious and spiritual traditions empower us and our cultures to express higher potentialities. They shine a light into the collective fields of mind, helping the more intuitive thinkers in any field to see more clearly, and in peak moments they reveal new dimensions of goodness, beauty and truth. Who is to say that the ecological perspective seeping through human thinking in our time is not a result of impression from Greater Minds?
Muhammed's Night Journey
All of the world’s religions speak of the beings of the heavenly realms in one way or another. Take, for example the Night of Power, Laylat al-Qadr, widely celebrated in the Islamic world during the final days of Ramadan. It marks the anniversary of the night when the Angel Gabriel visited the Prophet Muhammed, revealing the first verses of the Koran. On the Night of Power every year, God is believed to “command Gabriel to descend with seventy thousand angels… The angels separate over the lands of earth and visit every Muslim whom they find at the prayer-rite or engaged in dhikr…”5 It has been reported that worshippers have had visions of the heavenly world, seeing light “as a flash of lightning,” seeing angels, and “the abodes of the saints, the prophets and the martyrs.”6
Although the Prophet always maintained that the revelation of the word of God was the only miracle in his life, there is another event that is regarded as miraculous by many of the faithful, and by those outside of the religion. Muhammad spoke of being taken on a journey, through the heavens, to God.
The journey is described as ascending a ladder, and in this sense is reminiscent of the biblical image of Jacob’s ladder stretching between heaven and earth. Woken up during the night by Gabriel, the Prophet was mounted on a winged horse, Buraq. He was taken up the ladder to the Temple of Jerusalem, referred to in the Koran as the Further Mosque. And here we are given one of the most enduring images of an assembly of Great Ones.
The Koran acknowledges that there have been numerous prophets sent to different peoples at different times, referring specifically to the prophets of the Jewish and Christian traditions. At the Further Mosque, Mohammad is said to have joined an assembly of all of these earlier prophets—from Adam to Jesus. Taking his place at their head, he led the prophets in a prayer ritual. Gabriel then took him by the hand and led him up the ladder to visit the seven heavens. At each of the heavens he was greeted by the prophet or the prophets of that realm. Then he was taken to the regions of Paradise and Hell. Beyond the seventh heaven, Islamic tradition holds that there are two remaining planes of being: the Footstool and the Throne of God. Gabriel was not able to take the Prophet to these exalted states thus Muhammad journeyed on alone, remaining silent about his experience in the presence of the Great Light. Gabriel joined him for the journey back to earth, and together they visited each of the heavens where they bid farewell to the prophets.
The message of Islam is that down the ages God has chosen different prophets for different peoples. Each nation is said to have their own prophet, and the Koran advises its readers to accept that all God’s books and messages are true. Every prophet speaks a language appropriate for the people to whom he is sent—a language that corresponds with his people’s background and world view. As the Koran says, “We have sent no messenger save with the tongue of his people.” (14:4) Hence, the details of the message given to every prophet are different. “To every one of you [messengers] We have appointed a right way and an open road. If God had willed, He would have made you one nation.” (5:48) But God did not will, because he created the universe for diversity. Hence, he made many nations. “Had your Lord willed, He would have made mankind one nation.” (11:118)7
This idea of the diversity of prophets is further emphasised in the collections of ancient writings known as the hadith (the sayings of Muhammad and his companions). In one hadith we are told that God sent 124,000 prophets between the time of Adam and Muhammad, another says there were 224,000. A distinction is made in the Koran between prophets and messengers. The thousands of prophets include all those who have been directed by God to enlighten their peoples and remind them of the presence of the divine. They include those who have been the religious reformers and sages of each nation. Amongst these thousands tradition refers to 313 (the figure 315 is also given) messengers who have been granted a revelation which has formed the basis for a religion.
In our times this recognition of a diversity of prophets is central to the approach of many Muslims to the vision of a multi-faith world. And while the Koran refers to only Jews and Christians as “the people of the revealed scriptures,” the implication is that this refers to “all religious traditions which might concur with identifying their religious sources as derived from one and the same Divine source.”8 Certain Islamic jurists in Asia and Africa have widened the definition further to include Hindus and Buddhists as “people of the revealed scriptures.”
To me the key point about this inclusive view of the prophets and messengers is that it gives us a sense of the Great Ones as a vast body of enlightened beings, each one associated with particular nations and religious groups. It is this global picture which, I believe, is central to a modern understanding of the higher kingdoms. All peoples have their images of those who guard and guide from the inner realms, and in our time we are challenged to see these different images as part of one whole body of enlightened thought and guidance.
1 Quoted in Ken Wilbur, The Eye of Spirit, Shambhala Publications, 1997, p 43.
2. ibid, p. 43
4. ibid, p. 39.
5. Quoted in Constance E. Padwick, Muslim Devotions, Oxford Oneworld, 1996 (1961), p. 232.
6. ibid, p.232.
7. ibid, p. 133
8. Ghulam Haider Aasi, ‘A Portrait of Islam’ in Joel D. Beversluis, ed., A Sourcebook for the Community of Religions, Chicago, Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, 1993, p. 71.
Steve Nation is Director of the New York office of Lucis Trust. Together with his late wife, Jan, he is co-founder of Intuition in Service and the United Nations Days & Years Meditation Initiative. Since 2002 he has coordinated an annual global meditation Vigil for the United Nations International Day of Peace and for World Invocation Day. He writes a monthly newsletter available by email, Please Hold in the Light, as well as a regular column for the UK journal, Caduceus. Steve is actively involved as a Board member of: the Spiritual Caucus at the United Nations; Lifebridge Foundation, USA; Lucis Trust, USA, UK & Switzerland; and Darjeeling Goodwill Animal Shelter Trust, India. He lives with his wife, Barbara Valocore, in the Catskills region of the Hudson Valley, NY, USA.