By Edward Mathew Taylor
Originally printed in the MAY-JUNE 2008 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Taylor, Edward Mathew . "A Pilgrimage into Light: Discovering Islamic Theosophy." Quest 96.3 (MAY-JUNE 2008):93-95, 107.
MY ADVENTURE OF DISCOVERY BEGAN in 1987 in Seattle, Washington, when I joined the Seattle Lodge of the Theosophical Society and began studying the Theosophy of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Tibetan Buddhism. Like many people who are new to Theosophy, I felt it advantageous to begin a practice in meditation.
Having just gone through a divorce, I had been attending a church in Seattle where everyone seemed too happy. No one could give me an intelligent explanation for why things fall apart. Although I appreciated the need for maintaining a positive attitude, I was still doing damage assessment and trying to understand my role in what had happened.
I sensed Theosophy might offer some answers. Theosophy begins with self-examination and understanding the Laws of Karma: cause and effect or, put another way, what goes around comes around. I could see that I was the cause of much of my own sorrow. At the same time, I became intrigued with finding the Lost Horizon—the Pure Land—the closely held secret teachings that made Tibet the quest of spiritual inquirers throughout the centuries.
I learned about the Masters who had instructed H. P. Blavatsky. I, too, wanted to find "the jewels," so I started studying Buddhist meditation with a couple who had lectured at the Seattle Lodge of the Theosophical Society. It was harder than anticipated. No one could show me how to quiet my "monkey mind" while attempting to meditate.
My lessons in Tibetan Buddhism in Seattle were suddenly cut short in 1989 when my company transferred me to Dallas, Texas. Seven years later, while still in Dallas, an unprecedented opportunity came my way. An acquaintance recommended that I travel to Houston to meet a Tibetan teacher who was assisting with writing a book at Rice University. He represented the Bön religion, which predated traditional Buddhism in Tibet. (He is its world teacher and is now based in Charlottesville, Virginia.) I did not know anybody in Houston, so I found a hotel room and simply showed up for the teachings.
As was the case with other sects of Tibetan Buddhism, Bön was decimated after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Many Bönpo practitioners came to America for help in rebuilding what was lost, but unlike the other sects of Tibetan Buddhism that have been in the United States for decades, the Bönpo have only been here since 1989 when the Dalai Lama officially proclaimed Bön as the fifth school of Tibetan Buddhism.
Tibetan Bön traces its origin to a Buddha, Tonpa Shenrab, who lived some 18,000 years ago, making this one of the oldest spiritual traditions on the planet. Its place of origin may not have been Western Tibet, but a "lost kingdom" further west in Central Asia. The highest teachings of Bön are the Dzogchen teachings and the attainment of the Rainbow Body in which practitioners experience a metamorphosis of flesh, literally transforming into light—an altogether different definition of enlightenment. For the Bönpo, the term represents a literal, physical transformation of the human body onto a higher evolutionary photonic platform.
I could not believe what I was hearing. These were the jewels of the lost horizon! My experience in Seattle had led me to believe that I would have had to be a trusted practitioner for many years before I would be entrusted with something like this. Yet here I was—a complete stranger!
I shared my amazement with the people in the audience. One person said Bön wanted to differentiate itself from the other Tibetan schools already in the United States. I expressed my doubts about whether most Americans could appreciate something like this. Another person suggested that the teachings protect themselves, in that people who are not prepared for the teaching simply will not make a long-term commitment to it. I counted my blessings and immediately began a daily practice of structured breathing; concentrating, with eyes wide open without blinking and focusing on a luminous rainbow circle on a stick at eye-level, surrounding the Tibetan letter "Ah."
The next landmark in my pilgrimage was a sudden introduction to Islam. Like most Americans, Islam suddenly entered my awareness on September 11, 2001. I knew absolutely nothing about Islam, but the event motivated me to take an unread copy of the Qur'an off my library shelf and read it. Reading the Qur'an, I was stunned by how it was written. The angel Gabriel is instructing Muhammad in the present tense. Consequently, when reading the Qur'an, it is as if the angel is speaking directly to the reader.
Islam ties the teachings of the Hebrews and the Christians together in one final prophecy. I had read both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, and this made sense to me. I was also looking for something that could connect Western and Eastern thought. Perhaps this was it. While the Arabic culture seemed quite foreign to me, I could accept the Islamic teaching of an eternal, all-encompassing, unimaginable One, who has no partners, progeny, or anthropomorphic characteristics.
Nine months later, I decided to make a commitment to Islam. At that time, I worked for a technology company where many Muslims were employed. I asked a Saudi Arabian project manager I had come to know how one becomes a Muslim. He arranged for me to attend the local mosque and, on the day I took early retirement from my company, I declared the Shahadah: "Ash-shadu an la ilaha illallahu wa Muhammadur rasulullah" (There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger), and became a Muslim (one who surrenders to Allah, the all-encompassing One).
In reference to the events that occurred on September 11, 2001, I should note that I have never heard any Muslim advocate violence against innocent people. The Qur'an is very specific in teaching that killing innocent people is a seriously grievous sin. As one of my Muslim friends explained to me, this was clearly an extremist political act and not in any way a religious one.
Six months later, after moving to San Francisco, California, I shared my conversion to Islam and my experience with Tibetan Bön with a Persian professor I had met from the University of California in Berkeley. I was stunned by what he brought me the following week. It was a book, The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism by Henri Corbin; a presentation of The Wisdom of Illumination formulated by Amirak as-Suhrawardi, the reviver of the Hermetic Gnosis in Islam in the twelfth century. The book is an exegesis of the teachings of Light Body enlightenment in Islam.
I felt as if the Lost Horizon had opened and from this point on, became preoccupied with seeking an answer to an altogether new set of questions: Where did the whole concept of light body enlightenment originate? And how on earth did it find its way into Islam? Indeed, this appeared to be the Rainbow Bridge that links the East with the West—Buddhism with Biblical tradition—another set of priceless jewels.
Originally written in French, only a fraction of Corbin's writing has been translated into English. In The Man of Light, Corbin suggests that the photisms of light that one can naturally see within the eyes in darkness are soul-generated. In Tibetan Bön, one learns through meditation exercises in the dark, called Thogal practice, to rest in the natural arising of these inner lights, and not grasp at them when they occur. One encounters these visions in seven-week "Dark Retreats," where one waits for these visions to appear in a room with no light. Food and water are provided through a light-proof closet. Originally, these Dark Retreats were practiced in caves in the mountains of Tibet.
After death, similar visions appear in the Bardo—the intermediary state between death and rebirth. If, having practiced Thogal, one has learned to naturally rest in these visions and not grasp them when they appear in the Bardo, the cycle of rebirth will be broken. They become a Rainbow Body, or a Body of Light. According to Corbin, similar meditation exercises existed in Islam as well as in Buddhist Tibet. Corbin calls this physical metamorphosis into light the ultimate "Theophany."
In The Man of Light, Corbin summarizes the teachings of Najm Razi, an Islamic master-teacher who offers an entire hierarchy of subtle organs of light and color that reside in the human body that he associates with the Prophets of Islam and calls the "Seven Prophets of Your Being."
The first of these organs is called the'subtle body,' or the embryonic stage of the'new body.' This is called the Adam of your being. This is white light, the sign of Islam [surrendering to the all-encompassing One].
The second organ corresponds to the'human soul,' and is called the Noah of your being. This is yellow light, the sign of the fidelity of faith.
The third organ corresponds to the'heart,' and is called the Abraham of your being. It is dark blue light [indigo], the sign of benevolence.
The fourth organ corresponds to the'secret threshold of superconsciousness,' and is called the Moses of your being. It is green light, the sign of pacified soul.
The fifth organ corresponds to the'spirit,' and is called the David of your being. It is azure blue, the sign of firm assurance.
The sixth organ corresponds to what might best be described as the'theophanic witness' [arcanum], the Holy Spirit of God [this is not viewed in Islam as a separate entity from Allah], and is called the Jesus [Isa] of your being. It is red, the sign of mystical gnosis, or'theosophical knowledge, the Nous, or Active Intelligence.
The seventh organ corresponds to the'divine center of your being,' and is called the Mohammad of your being where one becomes the mouthpiece of God. It is black light, the sign of passionate, mystical love (107, 124, 126).
In Tibet, it is the Rainbow Body. To me, these seven organs suggest the physiology of color of Goethe, while the seven colors bring to mind the work of Sir Isaac Newton.
According to Corbin, this gradation of color reflects the process of this Theophany. Corbin suggests that one can evaluate one's progress on the path by identifying the predominant color of the internally generated photisms one is able to witness during these meditation practices in the dark. (Corbin actually goes so far as to suggest that, subconsciously, these colors are reflected in the favorite colors of the clothing people wear.)
The key to attaining this kind of Theophany, according to Corbin, is to declare one's poverty (the root meaning of the word "dervish"). In the Tibetan schema, this might constitute affirming one's essential emptiness. To experience these photisms, one must be open and cease to grasp or attempt to appropriate them when they occur. Corbin references Islamic text to this effect: "Renounce seeing, for here it is not a question of seeing." It is a process of surrendering; of releasing into bliss. This process of photonic metamorphosis has remarkable similarities to the Dzogchen teachings of Tibet.
How did the Light Body teachings enter into Islam? Corbin does not specifically address this question in The Man of Light, but he does provide some hints in his book, History of Islamic Philosophy. According to Corbin, during the thirteenth-century Mongol invasions, Islamic scholars who were situated in Central Asia, known as Outer Persia fled westward to Iran. It is possible that the medieval Persian influence in the area could mirror the current Islamic footprint, which extends into Kashmir and approximates Bön's place of origin.
Najm Kobr?, an Islamic master-teacher, was among those who fled Central Asia to Iran. It is possible that Najm Kobr? and others may have documented the teachings and practices of Tibetan Bön and introduced them into esoteric Islam. Finding an Islamic teacher familiar with this was the next stage of my journey.
In 2005, soon after completing my graduate studies in San Francisco, I befriended a software consultant who translated the Arabic sermons at the local mosque into English. This was a man I trusted completely, and when he mentioned that he and his wife were thinking of making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, I surprised him by asking if he would take me with him. He surprised me when he agreed.
The journey required a great deal of rigorous preparation. There were specific prayers I needed to memorize in Arabic and we had to chart out certain rituals that needed to be done on specific days without fail. We contacted one of the many firms that offer Hajj (pilgrimage) packages with hotel accommodations, meals, and transportation included. They would guide us every step of the way and, at that time, I had the necessary funds to be able to make the trip.
Over a period of time and through serious spiritual investigation, my trip to Mecca three years ago was an unprecedented outward expression of what has become a deeply-rooted inner reality. I simply do not possess the ability to describe what it is like to hear the Adhan (the Islamic Call to Prayer) ringing over loudspeakers all throughout the streets of Mecca, in a sea of over three million people—men and women—dressed in white robes, all concentrated in the same place, lined up in ranks to pray, foot-to-foot, kneeling on the cut marble flagstones of the Grand Mosque of Mecca—Al Haram (the Sanctuary)—bowing their foreheads to the floor. It was an experience that has been forever branded into my audio-visual memory store.
The Grand Mosque of Mecca is about the size of an American professional baseball park. It has spiritual significance for Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike. It is the place where Hagar, the first wife of Abraham, took Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn son into the desert.
In the Biblical account, Hagar traversed between two hills looking for a well. Her tracks have long since disappeared from the long concourse that stretches along the back of the Mosque, but the two hills, Safa and Marwa, are still there, and the fabled well, the Zamzam spring, still produces water after all these years.
According to the Muslim version, Abraham designed and built the Ka'ba, the focal point of all Muslim prayer around the world, on a spot that God designated by sending down a stone from heaven. Abraham implanted the Black Stone in the corner of the Ka'ba where it remains to this day. Pilgrims journey to Mecca to see and touch the Ka'ba and to circumambulate the structure seven times in a counter-clockwise direction (the same direction in which the Bönpo circumambulate their stupas). Many people do not realize that the ultimate destination of the Muslim pilgrimage is not Mecca, but Arafat, a hilltop far out in the Saudi Arabian desert, where Abraham received his calling as a prophet on the Mount of Mercy. Five days of the Hajj are spent out in the desert, journeying to and from Arafat.
The purpose of the pilgrimage is not to simply visit these places. The intent is for each and every pilgrim to experience in some way what Abraham and Hagar experienced: a calling to serve the eternal, all-encompassing One, who has no partners, progeny, or anthropomorphic characteristics. Those who debate the legitimacy of the pilgrimage simply do not appreciate the value and purpose of the journey.
Six months after we returned home to San Francisco, my friend and Hajj companion was transferred, ironically, to Houston, Texas. Thus, our journey to Mecca was a window of opportunity that was opened to me for only a brief while, and I was wise enough to take advantage. As I resumed reading Henri Corbin, I learned that the cave in the mountains above Mecca where Mohammad received his revelations is referred to by many Muslims as the cave of the lights of prophecy. "Allah guides to his Light whom he wills" (Qur'an, 24:35).
The Theosophical perspective considers life itself to be a sacred journey. If we approach our experiences in this way, then even the small and mundane can become touched with divinity. This is a gift we can share with everyone we live and work with, especially our own children and the younger generations.
Corbin, Henri. The History of Islamic Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
———. The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism. New Lebanon, NY: Omega Publications, 1994.
Edward Mathew Taylor has been engaged in a personal, experiential inquiry into the world's revealed religions and became a member of the Theosophical Society twenty years ago. After retiring from the corporate world, he returned to school to pursue a Master's degree in Fine Arts. Taylor has developed an artistic portfolio of over one hundred pencil drawings and several written manuscripts. He lives and works in San Francisco, California