One question or bundle of questions that often return to me is “What is tradition and how are the different traditions related to one another?” This is particularly relevant when one tries to understand what we as moderns use as a descriptional delimiter when speaking about “traditional” astrology as compared to “modern” astrology. If we look at the elements of astrology as they were in Bonatti’s or Lily’s time we notice that there are elements that we might speak of as being borrowed from Arabic astrology, which in turn may have been borrowed from Indian astrology, and so on. There is the question as to how cultural and religious focus, the traditions us such, contribute to particular insights and interpretation. And of course there is the question how the different traditions influence each other!
But first what is “tradition”? A dictionary will tell you that a tradition is a set of customs and beliefs that have been passed from one generation to the next over a long period of time. So we can include all of the major religions when we speak of tradition. We can also speak of that tradition that has developed since the Renaissance and more particularly since the Enlightenment which we as moderns tend to speak of as “natural science”. In fact just writing about traditions; analysing and comparing them, has its roots in this particular cultural habit of questioning, that has developed since the 17th century. Also the peculiar and necessary habit of trying to stand outside of things in order to better observe and form a complete and unbiased understanding. Erkenntnis, to use the German word. Insight that is within and not under the object of one’s knowledge.
When speaking of tradition the parable of the Ring comes to mind that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) used in his play, “Nathan the Wise”. The Thomas Taylor translation can be found at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3820. In the parable an opal ring of great value is described which has the property of rendering its wearer beloved of God and man. It is passed on to the most beloved son of each generation until one day its wearer has three beloved sons. He has two exact copies made and gives each son a ring…
A tradition is like a ring. It is complete within itself, all-encompassing, self-defining. Because that is so the zealots of any given tradition tend to emphasise an exclusiveness that forgets that there are other rings and their bearers may in fact have similar goals, as well as a blindness towards understanding the basics underlying the striving for truth. On the other hand a tradition must also be protected so that it remains whole, remains itself.
For those who explore the traditions it is important to wear only one ring at a time. It is the essence of a tradition that must be respected and in so doing we also find that which transcends each ring and unites it with its companions.
I have been writing about ibn ‘Arabi and what can be found in his work. That is only possible by slipping on the ring of his tradition and trying to understand it from within. If the essence is understood it is possible to recognise what is comparable when slipping on the rings of the other traditions. It is possible to recognize parallels in the Kabbalah as well as in the mysticism of Meister Eckehart. I think this is where the traps of both eclecticism and intolerance can be avoided.
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