Chapter Two: The Material World
As stars, a lamp, a fault of vision, As dewdrops or a bubble, A dream, a lightning flash, a cloud, So one should see conditioned things.
- Diamond Sutra
The entire purpose of our existence is to overcome our negative habits.
- Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna
After discovering the common teachings found throughout the six religious texts on the nature of the Divine, an age-old question remains: If the Ultimate Divine is all-powerful, omniscient, and the originator of material creation, then why is there rampant pain, injustice, ignorance and sorrow in this highly imperfect world? To answer this perennial mystery, we now examine what the holy books of humanity say about the nature and purpose of the material world. These foundational teachings all hold that the world is transitory. All six traditions compared in this book contrast the eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient One with the imperfections and ignorance found in created forms. Furthermore, the holy texts state that the difficulties we encounter in this realm stem from the fact that humanity lives in a proving ground for the manifestation of the ever-present Divine Essence. The essential reality of material creation is that it is a trial.
The duality of this world is reflected in the duality of individuals - within every human being there is potential for knowledge, generosity and kindness, as well as exploitation, ignorance, and greed. The key to overcoming the deficiencies of the world and ourselves is the knowledge inherent within each sentient being. This world is but temporary, whereas the Divine is eternal. One must not be attached to the transient realities of material existence, but must commune with the Eternal Presence through compassionate deeds rooted in ultimate awareness. The descriptions of the material world found throughout humanity’s most revered teachings form an essential component of their timeless and universal message.
The transient nature of the world is contrasted with the infinity of the Ultimate Divine in sura eighteen, verse forty-four of the Qur'an:
Set forth to them the similitude of the life of this world: It is like the rain which we send down from the skies: the earth's vegetation absorbs it, but soon it becomes dry stubble, which the winds do scatter: it is Allah who prevails over all things.
This verse describes a fact that is observable to every self-aware being. It is manifestly apparent that, because of natural laws, no plant, animal, or human being lives forever. Death and decay will eventually overtake all living things. When relating this fact to spirituality, the question of motivation becomes apparent to a logical human observer. Why would a perfect, eternal being create an imperfect, transient world? The first two verses of sura sixty seven of the Qur'an succinctly explain the universal spiritual view on the purpose of material existence:
Blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath Power;-He Who created Death and Life, that He may try which of you is best in deed: and He is the Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving.
Here is the common explanation, found in all religious scriptures, of the imperfections of material existence. Fundamentally, an individual’s life in this transient realm is a test. Human beings are blessed with intelligence and the freedom to choose their actions. All individuals inherently know the difference between what is morally correct or incorrect. These traits of knowledge and choice are unique features of human beings, which can resonate with the ever-present Divine Consciousness. The material temptations of greed and lust found in this world can be overcome with awareness and effort. The hardships of life and death are opportunities to behave with dignity and compassion. Note that the nature of this test is to see who is "best in deed", that is, who performs the right actions. In other words, this world is a proving ground for the Divine Potentials in all people, to be tested by the ignorance, imperfections and hardships inherent in earthly life. As to what constitutes the righteous actions that allow one to commune with and enter the Ultimate Source, this question shall be thoroughly examined in the following chapters. Fundamentally, the essential point in all thought and deed is compassion- to see the joys and sorrows of others as one’s own, and to always act in a manner than corresponds with this vision. Those individuals who recognize the true nature and purpose of this transitory realm constantly follow the moral imperatives of universal sympathy. This timeless message is found throughout the spiritual teachings of all cultures.
The teachings of Jesus also present the dichotomy between the transient material world and the imperishable abode of the Divine. In verses nineteen and twenty of chapter six of the Book of Matthew, Jesus instructs his followers:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:
This passage explains the temporary nature of created reality, and instructs humanity to give charity and engage in good works. All joys found in this universe will whither and fade; only the Divine is eternal. To live with compassion in thought and deed allows individuals to escape their own inherent mortality.
In the Book of Mark, Jesus offers a Christian explanation for the purpose of this world that is almost identical to the formula offered in the Qur'an and the other holy texts. The Parable of the Sower, one of the most well-known allegories in the New Testament, is a powerful metaphor which describes the relationship between the Divine and the intelligent beings found in the created world. In chapter four, verses three through nine of the Book of Mark Jesus says:
Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: And it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred. And he said unto them, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus then explains in verses fourteen through twenty:
The sower soweth the word. And these are they by the way side, where the word is sown; but when they have heard, Satan cometh immediately, and taketh away the word that was sown in their hearts. And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground; who, when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness; And have no root in themselves, and so endure but for a time: afterward, when affliction or persecution ariseth for the word's sake, immediately they are offended. And these are they which are sown among thorns; such as hear the word, And the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becometh unfruitful. And these are they which are sown on good ground; such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.
With this metaphor, Jesus tells a story that is common to all religious traditions. The “sower” is the All-Powerful God who spreads out material creation. The seed that is sowed is “the word”, an imprint of the Divine nature that is present everywhere. This Divine Spark is spread throughout the material world, including into humanity itself. This essential theological fact makes sense in light of the conclusions of the last chapter, for all six traditions hold that the Divine is omnipresent. Our apparent freedom of will and the gift of self-awareness are the qualities that allow us to (imperfectly and infinitesimally) imitate the Ultimate Divine. Individuals, based on their attitudes and actions, either cultivate this Eternal Essence, or choose to ignore it. When the Divine finds within an individual compassion, self-control, and faith, the beneficent results are exponential. Conversely, the greed and ignorance found in this sphere can stymie an individual’s better nature. The Divine Spark is always the same, but different results are obtained because of the various qualities of the "ground" that the Divine Spark is planted in. In other words, the various qualities of individual human beings will determine if the Divine within each person is choked and stemmed or grows and thrives. Therefore, the created world, especially the human beings within it, may be thought of as a grand experiment. Into what person can the Divine nature be allowed to grow? Who amongst us will master their base, transient instincts in order to fulfill an eternal potential? The interrelated universal imperatives of compassion, service, and a rejection of materialism that stem from our mutual possession of the Divine Spark will be examined in the next chapter. At any rate, with this parable Jesus relates a vital message common to all religious thought. The imperfections of this realm present a trial for human beings. One who embraces unlimited compassion and rejects materialism can escape the inherent flaws of earthly existence.
The Dhammapada similarly describes the impermanent nature of the material world and our physical forms. The first verse of chapter eleven reads:
When this world is ever ablaze, why this laughter, why this jubilation? Shrouded in darkness, why don't you seek the light? Behold this body, a painted image, a mass of heaped up sores--infirm, full of hankering, with nothing lasting or stable.
This passage succinctly explains the main motivation for spiritual thought and behavior. It is inescapably apparent that physical death will overcome every human being. One does not need spiritual faith to realize that all physical beauty, strength, wealth and power will ultimately fade and disappear. These conclusions have been apparent since the very genesis of consciousness. It is the "darkness" of decay and mortality leads self-aware beings to seek an eternal order. Although physical life is impermanent, all religions speak of the possibility of overcoming death itself.
The recorded teachings of the Buddha, similar to all holy texts, impart the common method for passing the test of corporeal existence and vanquishing of material imperfections. In language strikingly similar to that of Jesus, the Buddha offers a formula for the cultivation and nourishment of the eternal Divine essence within our imperfect, transient bodies. Verses twenty-seven through thirty of chapter twenty-four of the Dhammapada describe the universal trial of the world:
Weeds are the bane of fields, lust the bane of mankind. Therefore what is offered to those free of lust yields abundant fruit. Weeds are the bane of fields, hatred the bane of mankind. Therefore what is offered to those free of hatred yields abundant fruit. Weeds are the bane of fields, delusion the bane of mankind. Therefore what is offered to those free of delusion yields abundant fruit. Weeds are the bane of fields, desire the bane of mankind. Therefore what is offered to those free of desire yields abundant fruit.
Lust, hatred, delusion and desire are the true enemies of human beings, and that these attitudes and qualities are harmful to the growth of the better (and eternal) part of human nature. The images used by the Buddha are almost identical to those used by Jesus. This passage from the Dhammapada and the Parable of the Sower both explain the growth-dampening effect that material lusts have on the soul, and both promise a bountiful harvest to those who master themselves. One must cleanse his or her self of selfish, transient, and base instincts in order to reap the promised reward of the all-powerful Divine within. Otherwise, the individual will suffer from the inherent instability and decay of all material forms. This world is a test. Every day brings new opportunities to actualize the Divine Will through awareness, the vanquishing of attachments, and good actions. Human beings who overcome hatred, lust, delusion, and desire, will embrace Nirvana and fully harvest their innate potential.
The dichotomy between our transient bodies inhabited and the immortal Essence within is explained by Krishna in chapter two, verses thirteen through seventeen of the Bhagavad Gita:
As the embodied soul continuously passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. A sober person is not bewildered by such a change. O son of Kunti [Arjuna], the nonpermanent appearance of happiness and distress, and their disappearance in due course, are like the appearance and disappearance of winter and summer seasons. They arise from sense perception, O scion of Bharata, and one must learn to tolerate them without being disturbed. O best among men [Arjuna], the person who is not disturbed by happiness and distress and is steady in both is certainly eligible for liberation. Those who are seers of the truth have concluded that of the nonexistent [the material body] there is no endurance and of the eternal [the soul] there is no change. This they have concluded by studying the nature of both. That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.
The fundamental difference between eternal soul and perishable matter is such that conditioned, physical bodies are said to be "nonexistent". It is apparent to every thinking being that physical joy and suffering cycle like the seasons. This transient material illusion is separate from the everlasting Divine Imprint within. Our souls are everlasting, although bodies grow old and die. Once again, we see in this passage a common theme throughout the holy texts of all religions; self-mastery and awareness are needed to overcome transience and enter union with the Divine. We are invited to escape the transience of material uncertainties through attuning ourselves to our eternal, unchanging, and undying Spark.
The Bhagavad Gita further addresses the issue of imperfections in the world, and their causes in chapter three, verses thirty-six through forty-three:
Arjuna said: O descendant of Vrsni, by what is one impelled to sinful acts, even unwillingly, as if engaged by force? The Supreme Personality of Godhead said: It is lust only, Arjuna, which is born of contact with the material mode of passion and later transformed into wrath, and which is the all-devouring sinful enemy of this world. As fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, or as the embryo is covered by the womb, the living entity is similarly covered by different degrees of this lust. Thus the wise living entity's pure consciousness becomes covered by his eternal enemy in the form of lust, which is never satisfied and which burns like fire. The senses, the mind and the intelligence are the sitting places of this lust. Through them lust covers the real knowledge of the living entity and bewilders him. Therefore, O Arjuna, best of the Bharatas, in the very beginning curb this great symbol of sin by regulating the senses, and slay this destroyer of knowledge and self-realization. The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence. Thus knowing oneself to be transcendental to the material senses, mind and intelligence, O mighty-armed Arjuna, one should steady the mind by deliberate spiritual intelligence and thus -- by spiritual strength -- conquer this insatiable enemy known as lust.
One's perfect, pure, Divine nature is obscured by corporeal greed. Lust is a natural reaction in our minds, which must be tamed by our higher nature. When one longs for material comforts, or societal rewards, lust shall rear its ugly head. Material craving is addictive, and is never satisfied. One needs only to objectively observe modern industrial society to see the insatiability of materialism. Are the wealthiest people you know the also the happiest? No matter how many possessions are acquired, true and lasting inner peace can never be won through material means. By giving in to fleeting obsessions and temptations, individuals encourage the transient within their minds, and stymie the Divine, eternal potential. There are obvious parallels with the Christian and Buddhist scriptures. Krishna teaches that the smoke and dust of greed obscures true vision of the Divine within, just like the "weeds" and "thorns" in the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus. The illusions found throughout this temporary sphere obscure the true nature of reality. This world is but a trial. Seeking your true, undying spirit and regulating your desires, are the keys to freeing your mind from lust and unlocking the Divine potential. When base desires are shed, one fully submits oneself to the natural workings of the universe, and embraces true knowledge, compassion, and consciousness. This quest to overcome the temporary and commune with the Undying is the fundamental purpose of our existence.
Confucius contrasts the transitory nature of material reality with the virtuous and eternal Way of Heaven in chapter seven, section sixteen of the Analects:
The Master said, "With coarse rice to eat, with water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow;– I have still joy in the midst of these things. Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud."
Confucius condemns earthy pleasures that come about through immorality. Clearly, he taught his followers that such amusements are transitory, like everything in this realm. The path of virtue, on the other hand, is eternal. One should find joy through learning and compassionate action, and not be swayed from this course by material lusts. This theme is further expounded in verse nine of chapter fifteen of the Analects:
The Master said, 'The determined scholar and the man of virtue will not seek to live at the expense of injuring their virtue. They will even sacrifice their lives to preserve their virtue complete.'
Virtue is superior to life itself. The holy, eternal nature of virtue is based on right thought and right action, and is contrasted with the transitory realities of human life. The virtue spoken of by Confucius is therefore (as mentioned in the previous chapter) an expression of the Divine will. Human beings can choose to commune with the eternal or wallow in the mud of selfish desires. In order to fulfill one’s potential as a human being, virtue must be constantly adhered to in spite of transient material distractions.
Material lusts can lead one astray from the Eternal. In section twelve of the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu teaching his followers this essential truth in all religious teachings:
The five colors make man's eyes blind;
The five notes make his ears deaf;
The five tastes injure his palate;
Riding and hunting
Make his mind go wild with excitement;
Goods hard to come by
Serve to hinder his progress.
Hence the sage is
For the belly
Not for the eye.
Therefore he discards the one and takes the other.
One’s true sight is obscured by the material illusion. All human beings must control themselves in order to seek the Way. Only the essentials of life are needed in the corporeal realm - all other cravings are distractions, which lead individuals astray from the Divine will. We must control our desires in order to have happy and meaningful lives. Ignorance, illusion, violence and evil stem from prolonged and excessive material grasping. In order to fully use the potential in their transient lives, human beings must strive for the Eternal.
Section twenty-nine of the Tao te Ching provides a further example of Lao Tzu’s teachings on the nature of the material world which closely mirrors the sacred words of the other holy texts:
Whoever takes the empire and wishes to do anything to it I see will have no respite.
The empire is a sacred vessel and nothing should be done to it.
Whoever does anything to it will ruin it;
whoever lays hold of it will lose it.
Hence some things lead and some follow;
Some breathe gently and some breathe hard;
Some are strong and some are weak;
Some destroy and some are destroyed.
Therefore the sage avoids excess, extravagance, and arrogance.
Lao Tzu’s explanations of the nature and purpose of this imperfect realm are entirely congruent with the words of all religious teachings. Those who flounder in material grasping are always unsatisfied, because of the very nature of transient reality. One who solely seeks corporeal luxuries and power will never meet with the Eternal Way. To hold authority over others in one’s grasp is to lose it, because all strength in this world will eventually be exhausted. The means to overcoming this transience is to attune oneself to the Way by giving up the human imperfections of material excess, boasting, and greed. To seek mastery over one’s inherent imperfections we act with awareness of the nature of this realm, and to truly live the life of a “sage”. This is the path of compassion, the everlasting morality and awareness that allows one to see the essential solidarity of all beings. To live a blameless and pure life is to live with true knowledge of what is temporary, and what is Everlasting.
Every religious text compared in this book holds that the material world a temporary realm which is contrasted with the Eternal Divine. This universe can be thought of as a trying-ground for the cultivation of the Divine Spark within sentient beings. Through a process of self-control in thought and action, and the possession of the knowledge of what is transient and what is unchanging, one can be brought into union with and earn the harvest of the Divine. Otherwise, we are bound by the physical realities of this universe to suffer through the imperfections of material existence. One cannot escape death, except through union with the Deathless. By attuning ourselves to the Omniscient, wisdom, compassion and peace can be cultivated.