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The Madness of the Ego

An Extraordinary Buddhist-Gnostic Parallel


Gnostic creation myth has been called "sci-fi theology" because of the way it presents theological material in fantastic, space-age imagery. The most striking science fictional figure in Gnostic cosmology is Yaldabaoth, the demiurge or false creator god. Gnostics such as Marcion identified Yaldabaoth with the male creator god of the Old Testament, Yahweh-Jehovah, and consequently denied that entity any role in the good direction of humanity. On the contrary, Yahweh-Yaldabaoth is a demented deity, a god who works against humanity. In the Gnostic revision of the Old Testament, it is clear that the monotheistic status demanded by Jehovah is due to the madness of the pseudo-god.

But what are we to make of this unique case of cosmic insanity?

Cosmic Accident

The Hypostasis of the Archons and other cosmological treatises describe how Yaldabaoth emerges from the chaos of elementary matter due to the impact of the Aeon Sophia in the "waters below" — the realm of the galactic arms outside the galactic core (Pleroma). Sophia's plunge from the core produces an "abortion" or premature birth in the elementary realms. Normally, life-forms that appear in the star-worlds of the galactic arms are emanated from within the Pleroma, infused and informed by divine design before they manifest. But the Archons produced by Sophia's impact arise without having been prefigured by the Pleromic gods. The "abortion" is a formless mess like a premature fetus with its organs incompletely formed, its faculties stunted.

Can Sophia's plunge be considered as a cosmic accident? Perhaps, in a sense, it can. Accidents do happen in the cosmos at large. In the commentaries to the Gaia Mythos I have argued that Sophia's Plunge may be a mythopoetic description of a power surge from the galactic core. Scientists have recently detected a tunnel-like channel in the galaxy, extending directly from the galactic core into the region of the encircling arms where the solar system is located. Such a power surge is central to Dr. Paul LaViolette's theory of the galactic superwave or cosmic ray volley. LaViolette argues that, as "progeny stars" form around the galactic core, its gravity well deepens and its internal temperature and energy increase to a peak moment:

    The galactic core's energy output eventually becomes so great that instabilities develop and cause it to explode. During this temporary active mode, its luminosity increases millions of times over, and it releases an intense volley of cosmic ray particles and high energy radiation that trvels radially outward in the form of an expanding shell called a galactic superwave. (Genesis of the Cosmos, p. 93)

Needless to say, this is an extremely violent event with massive lethal and catastrophic consequences — according to LaViolette's vision, anyway. In my revision of Gnostic myth, I assume that the entire cosmos is alive, animated and animating. A galactic superwave, or power surge from the galactic core, might not be a lethal volley of cosmic rays, after all. It could be a surge of divine life-force, even an outpouring of immense tenderness, or a ripple of cosmic desire. This is certainly how Gnostic mythology describes Sophia's plunge.

The astrophysical parallel to Gnostic myth is interesting, but it ought not lead us to think that myth needs scientific verification to be true, or to be valued as true. If there are periodic cosmic surges from the galactic core, we would do well to understand such phenomena in imaginative terms, and in psychological language, because that is how we can begin to see the complementarity of psyche and cosmos. At first sight, the narrative of the demiurge seems to be a one-off, isolated event, unlike anything else in world mythology. Many scholars have assumed that the figure of Yaldabaoth is totally anomalous, a freak mythologem found only among those bizarre fantastists, the Gnostics.

But it so happens there is an exact parallel to the Gnostic figure of the Demiurge. It is found in the sacred traditions of Buddhism.

Buddhist Genesis

This is perhaps the last place one would be inclined to look. Why? Because Buddhist teachings do not give much importance to the discrete genesis of the universe. Creation is not in the Buddhist syntax. All conditions that arise in the cosmos are just that: conditions arising. All present conditions, physical and psychological, far and near, inner and outer, arise from preceding ones, according to the law of "interdependent origination," and that's all there is to it. If the cosmos is in eternal becoming, it is a futile exercise to try to determine a discrete moment of creation. Moreover, Buddhism tends to emphasize the apparitional nature of all phenomena — this approach is called docetism in Gnostic textual analysis. Not only is the cosmos an eternal becoming, it is also the mere appearance of an eternal becoming! Where does the notion of creation fit into such a world-view?

Surprizing as it may seem, there do exist some indications of what may be called a Buddhist creation myth, a Buddhist counterpart to Genesis, if you will. The textual sources are various, and tend to be largely overlooked in the current atmosphere of Buddhist studies. What is most certainly a pre-Buddhist account of world-creation can be found in Pali sources such as the Dighanikaya, the Anuguttaranikaya, and the Vishuddhimagga, "The Path of Perfection." Works in the Pali language belong to an elite subcategory of modern Buddhist studies, so it is not surprizing if these materials have been overlooked. But at least two Sanskrit texts, the Abhidharmakosha and the Shikshasamuccaya also contain elements of the Buddhist Genesis.

According to John Mrydhin Reynolds (Self-Liberation through Seeing in Naked Awareness) these ancient sources tell us that Gotama, the historical Buddha, explained to his followers that

    the humanity found on this planet earth once inhabited another planetary system. Ages ago when the sun of that world went nova and the planet was destroyed in the ensuing solar eruptions, the bulk of its inhabitants... were reborn on one of the higher planes of the Form World or Rupadhatu, a plane of existence known as Abhasvara or "clear light" (p. 99).

Here is a stunningly clear description of a physical event, a star going nova, combined with a metaphysical event, the transmigration of the inhabitants of a planet encircling that star to another plane of existence. The language in use reflects, in part, the current scientific syntax of LaViolette's galactic superwave theory. Scientists know that novae are relatively common events, while the superwave is still largely theoretical. So much for the physical event.

As for the metaphysical event of planetary transmigration, a cosmic drama now unfolds. The humanity who inhabited the novaed system were transported to the Rupadhatu plane because of their arduous practice of the Dharma, the ancient sources say. There "they enjoyed inconceivable bliss and felicity for countless aeons" (Ibid.) But when those karmic conditions expired, another world, the current earth, was already forming, and some of the blissfull inhabitants of the Rupadhatu plane were attracted there and began to be reborn in that region, though not yet on the emergent planet itself. The intermediate realm where they incarnated was called Brahmaloka, "the Creator Zone." (In Hindu myth and in Buddhist metapsychology, Brahma is the "creator god.")

At first, the transmigrating beings (who are us) did not realize where they were or what was happening to them, exactly. The first one who really woke up and got a sense of being in this new realm immediately said, "I am the Creator." The first entity spoke in this way because the conditions of consciousness in which it came to see itself were those of the Creator Zone, Brahmaloka. This entity, who was a manifestation of humanity, came to believe that "he" was actually the creator of the universe he beheld around him. He did not remember that he came from a previous world that had been destroyed, and he appeared as if born without any parents. In the absence of conflicting evidence, he fell into the delusion of being the sole creator of the emergent world he beheld. J. M. Reynolds comments

    In actuality the manifestation of this universe was due to the collective karma of all in that company, and his own individual manifestation, which as a case of apparitional birth, was due to his own great stock of meritorious karma coming into maturation at that time because the requisite secondary conditions were present. Nevertheless, he persisted in his delusion, in this idea that he was the actual Creator of the universe because he was the first born within the evolving solar system and saw no others there before him. But this belief was only his limitation and his obscuration, a primordial ignorance of his true origin. (Ibid. Italics added.)

All of which, I reckon, makes for some pretty fine science fiction in its own right. The point by point correlation of Buddhist and Gnostic elements here is fantastic. The "apparitional birth" of the delusional Creator parallels the "abortion" of the Sophia Mythos. The delusion of the self-proclaimed Creator is identical in both narratives. The Gnostic Demiurge is also "born within the evolving solar system" and "saw no others before him." Yaldabaoth is the chief of the Archons, entities who are so named because they arise first, before the earth, humanity's habitat, is formed. Archon is from the Greek archai, "origin, beginning, from the start." It seems that the intermediate zone, the lower Rupadhatu, corresponds to the outer chaos of Gnostic myth. This is where the Demiurge arises, just appearing out of nothing: "a case of apparitional birth." Yaldabaoth is blind (Coptic BILLE) and ignorant of his true origins. In the Buddhist narrative as in the Gnostic, the primordial ignorance of the Creator will contaminate the entire human race.

The parallels are striking and consistent, except on one point. Gnostic texts say nothing about the Demiurge having "his own great stock of meritorious karma." However, they do describe how Yaldabaoth and the Archons are beneficiaries of the cosmic wisdom of Sophia, the goddess who produces them. The Gnostic Demiurge is an empty, clone-like entity, incapable of creating anything, and yet the clockwork wonder of the planetary system is created through him (and his minions) by the hidden powers imparted by Sophia. There is perhaps a parallel here, after all, but it is certainly strange to think of the Lord Archon as an entity having a store of good karma!

In mystical and shamanic traditions of Asia, the experience of egodeath and surrender to the streaming of the life-force is often depicted by violent and frightening images, such as the headless Kali. (Detail, Kali Chinnamasta, Nepalese thanka in Newari style, Bise Surge, Kathmandu, 1993. Plate 13 in Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas, Muller-Ebing and Ratsch.)


Cosmic Egotism

The Brahmaloka deity is delusional, but perhaps not as insane as Yaldabaoth is portrayed as being. In both cases, the core of the delusion is the sense of self, the belief in the existence of an abiding self. Reynolds says that the awakening entity's illusion was "the first appearance of the ego or the belief in the real existence of a self, in our universe." The ego-illusion is not the cause of the universe we behold, but it is the main factor in our erroneous perception of the universe. This observation accords closely with the Gnostic theory of error.

The drama continues, for the rest of transmigrating humanity have not yet awakened to their life in the new world system. "Because he was the first among the Brahmas to be reborn out of Abhasvara, he became known as the Mahabrahma or God." After existing in solitary splendor for many eons while "the solar system evolved" (Reynolds, throughout), Mahabrahma longed for subjects to witness his glory. At the very moment he felt this longing, the karma of the other, unawakened Brahmas ripened, and they emerged from their bardo stupor. Instantly, Mahabrahma declared to them, " I am God, your Creator!" This was absurd, because these beings emerged due to their own karmic ripening and not to his bidding, or his creative conjuration. Mahabrahma now "organized these myriad beings who were appearing in the space about him into well-ordered celestial hierarchies."

In the Gnostic narrative, Yaldabaoth, the Lord Archon, commands his clone-like minions to create a virtual display (stereoma) of hierarchial worlds that reflect the living fractal kaliedoscope of conscious, animated currents in the Pleroma, the galactic core. The Demiruge can only imitate, he cannot create or originate. The Gnostic texts are clearly sarcastic in describing the celestial hierarchies of the Archons, because for Gnostics all this celestial kitsch has nothing to do with the wonder of life that will unfold on earth, the realm where Sophia is embodied. Earth is where humanity emerges. It is the unique habitat of the Anthropos.

Gnostic teaching is unequivocal on the difference between the species produced by Sophia's plunge and the human species. interestingly, the Buddhist narrative does not make any such distinction. It relates that Mahabrahma came to be surrounded by increasing numbers of reincarnating humans, transmigrants from the novaed world. These lesser Brahmas form his entourage, and they wholly believe he is the creator of the realm where they now find themselves. The Buddhist creation myth does specify any difference between the beings who arise around Mahabrahma and human beings. "Gradually, as time wore on, due to the presence of a series of secondary causes, some of these Brahmas entered into the cycle of material existence and began to be reborn on the surface of the newly evolved earth, first as animals and then later as human beings." (p. 100)

The Buddhist narrative traces the transmigrating humanity from a novaed planet down to the earth we inhabit — a remarkable visionary sweep. Unlike the Gnostic parallel, it does not distinguish the human beings in the entourage of Mahabrahma from Archons, the clone-like legion of the Demiurge. The Buddhist account makes no pronouncement whatsoever on non-human entities in the solar system. The Gnostic narrative remains absolutely unique on that factor. Moreover, the Buddhist tradition assumes that the earth belongs to the solar system that emerges below the Rupadhatu plane, but Gnostic tradition considers that the earth does not really belong to the planetary system, but is merely captured in it.

These Gnostic-Buddhist correlations are extraordinary, as much in the ways they diverge as in the ways they converge.

There are more reflections on creationism and cosmic egotism, drawn from the works of the Nyingma sage, Long Chen Pa, in the concluding part of this essay. Stay tuned.

jll: August 23, 2005





Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2016 by John Lash.