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Huston Smith and the Primordial Tradition

Four Levels of Reality

The Great Chain of Being begins with the Source and proceeds through emanationist through various stages of manifestation, down to matter and non-being.  Thus Reality is described in terms of a specific structure.  The accounts of different traditional and pre-modern esoteric and exoteric cosmologies are similar enough for it to be possible to present a single account embracing all of them

Such a unified account has already been presented, at least on a basic level, by one contemporary scholar of comparative religion external link Professor Huston Smith (formerly of Syracuse University, N.Y.), who (in his books Amazon com Forgotten Truth and Amazon com Beyond the Post-Modern Mind) refers to four levels, which pertain to bioth the microcosm (the individual) and the macrocosm (the universe and reality as a whole):

The Great Chain of Being
  • Spirit/Infinite - God unmanifest: Godhead or the Infinite.
  • Soul/Celestial - God manifest: the celestial plane.
  • Mind/Intermediate - The world in all its invisible aspects: mind and the vital principle; the intermediate plane.
  • Body/Terrestrial - The world as visible: space, time and matter; the terrestrial plane.

Here we have a basic spiritual cosmology consisting of physical reality; intermediate or psychic reality; spiritual and Divine reality; and Absolute Reality or Godhead or Source. (see also the Three Tier Model, which is identical to the above except that it does not include Spirit/Infinite as a sperate hypostasis)

As Professor Smith points out, each of these levels of reality can be studied separately:

"The marvels of the terrestrial plane are being unveiled at an astonishing rate by the physical sciences.  The intermediate realm adds life and consciousness: biology helps to understand the former, and for light on the latter we turn to the durable findings of phenomenology, depth psychology, and parapsychology, as well as aspects of shamanism and folk religion.  The theologies of the great traditions describe God's knowable nature (the celestial plane) from a variety of cultural angles, and the literature of mysticism carries the mind as far as it can journey into God's absolute and infinite depths"
[Amazon com Beyond the Post-Modern Mind, p.45].

In this all-embracing gradational metaphysic, we have a way of looking at the world totally different to the conventional Materialistic or Dualistic stance.  Borrowing a popular Theosophical term, I use the word "Esoteric" to indicate this alternative way of perceiving things

It would be possible to add many more correspondences here. The following is a more elaborate diagram of the four levels described by Professor Smith:

The Great Chain of Being in the world religions

Diagram by Brad Reynolds, from Ken Wilber, Amazon com A Brief History of Everything, (Shambhala: Boston), 1996.

Here, the top half of the diagram refers to levels of reality ("the macrocosm") and the bottom half to levels of self ("the microcosm"). Note: There are a few errors here - the bottom half under Judaism has sefirot when it should hav ethe equivalent levels of soul - nefesh, ruah, neshamah - while at the top the world of Emanation (Atzilut) corresponds to "God" not the Absolute or Godhead, but these are minor points, and on the whole this is a very good diagram.

Web links Links Web links

Interview with Huston Smith

Forgotten Truth : The Common Vision of the World's Religions
Beyond the Post-Modern Mind

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original content by M.Alan Kazlev
this page uploaded 28 June 2004 (originally 8 April 1999), last modified 26 August