Essays Featured — 02 November 2014

Shanti aka Iam writes to Richard Maurice Bucke.

Dear Maurice,

It feels so good to write you, finally!

Yes, I am pretty late. Being born as Richard Maurice Bucke in 1837, you passed away more than a century ago, on that cold winter day, the 19th of February, 1902, a few hours after slipping on a patch of ice in front of your home in London, Ontario, Canada, where you were heading the provincial “Asylum of the Insane”. You were deeply mourned then by your 8 children and by the large circle of your friends, who loved you for your honesty, your warm heart and your intellectual force. Dear Maurice, know we still love and remember you! Your magnum opus, “Cosmic Consciousness”, published in 1901, one year before your poor head hit too hard on the ice, and reprinted and translated several times since then, became part of the foundation of what is called nowadays “Transpersonal Psychology”, together with William James’ classic work, “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, published in 1902, which cites you. Today everyone can read your book on the Internet for free:

Richard M. Bucke and family

In this wonderful book you introduce your 3 forms or grades of consciousness; each one of them can be present in someone in a more or a less developed stage.

  • Simple Consciousness, which is possessed by say the upper half of the animal kingdom. By means of this faculty a dog or a horse is just as conscious of the things around him as a man is; he is also conscious of his own limbs and body and he knows that these are a part of himself.
  • Over and above this Simple Consciousness, which is possessed by man as by animals, man has another which is called Self Consciousness. By virtue of this faculty man is not only conscious of trees, rocks, waters, his own limbs and body, but he becomes conscious of himself as a distinct entity, apart from all the rest of the universe. You consider it is as good as certain that no animal can realize himself in that way. Further, by means of self consciousness, man becomes capable of treating his own mental states as objects of consciousness. The animal is, as it were, immersed in his consciousness, as a fish in the sea; he cannot, even in his imagination, get outside of it for one moment so as to realize it. But man, by virtue of self consciousness, can step aside, as it were, from himself and think: “Yes, that thought that I had about that matter is true; I know it is true and I know that I know it is true.”
  • Cosmic Consciousness is a third form which is as far above Self Consciousness as Self Consciousness is above Simple Consciousness. The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is, as its name implies, a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness. With these come what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.

The very basis of your book and of your ideas about consciousness is your personal experience. You write about it, in the third person:

“It was in the early spring, at the beginning of his thirty-sixth year. He and two friends had spent the evening reading Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Browning, and especially Whitman. His mind, deeply under the influence of the ideas, images and emotions called up by the reading and talk of the evening, was calm and peaceful. He was in a state of quiet, almost passive enjoyment. All at once, without warning of any kind, he found himself wrapped around as it were by a flame-colored cloud. Directly afterwards came upon him a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness, accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination, quite impossible to describe. Into his brain streamed one momentary lightning-flash of the Brahmic Splendor, which has ever since lightened his life; upon his heart fell one drop of Brahmic Bliss, leaving thenceforward for always an aftertaste of heaven.

“Among other things he did not come to believe; he saw and knew that the Cosmos is not dead matter, but a living Presence, that the soul of man is immortal, that the universe is so built and ordered that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all, that the foundation principle of the world is what we call love and that the happiness of everyone is in the long run absolutely certain. He claims that he learned more within the few seconds, during which the illumination lasted, than in previous months or even years of study and that he learned much that no study could ever have taught. The illumination itself continued not more than a few moments, but its effects proved ineffaceable; it was impossible for him ever to forget what he at that time saw and knew; neither did he or could he ever doubt the truth of what was then presented to his mind. There was no return, that night or at any other time, of the experience. The supreme occurrence of that night was his real and sole initiation to the new and higher order of ideas. But it was only an initiation. He saw the light, but had no more idea whence it came and what it meant than had the first creature that saw the light of the sun.”

Osho: “The possibility is there. If you make the effort you will catch the one ray that exists in you, and once you catch the one ray, the sun is not very far; then through the ray you can reach the sun – the ray becomes the path”. (1)

You caught that one ray. This experience of you became the very start of your quest. You started researching, looking round the world of man, throughout the last forty centuries of the world’s history, for people who might have shared this experience with you. You are so bold (or naive?) to formulate criteria which show, in your opinion, if someone’s writings are a clear and convincing or a foggy and doubtful proof of their experience of this so-called cosmic consciousness. You are sure, among 14 others, of Gautama the Buddha, Jesus the Christ, Mohammed, Dante, Francis Bacon, William Blake and, most of all, Walt Whitman. You are not so sure, among 36 others, of Moses, my great friend Lao Tze, Socrates, Blaise Pascal, Spinoza, Swedenborg, Pushkin, Emerson, Thoreau and Sri Ramakrishna.

Dear Maurice, I love the honesty you show in sharing your most valuable personal experience with us; I love the way you take this experience serious, your thorough investigation into the writings of the people you share this experience with, your great love and immense respect for Walt Whitman and most of all, your trust that what you call cosmic consciousness “must not be looked upon as being in any sense supernatural or supra-normal, as anything more or less than a natural growth.”

You may be delighted to hear what Osho has to say about Walt Whitman: “This man Whitman is really a mystic, not just a poet. He should be counted with the ancient rishis of the Upanishads. America has not given birth to many great mystics. Whitman is really one of the most precious gifts of America to the world.” (2) Walt Whitman may mean to you what Osho means to me.

I read your magnum opus for the first time in the early seventies of the last century, 70 years after its first publication, and a couple of times since then. I love that you, a Canadian psychiatrist, head of an “asylum of the insane”, are so involved in the most sane man mankind has known and in the sanity which you consider to be everybody’s birthright. Although the names belong to very special people, easily to be considered as other-worldly or extremely gifted, your trust is in all of us. You deal with those guys as human beings, not as sons of a God and you take it for granted that we are all pregnant with this consciousness, which will finally be born in everyone of us in a more or less overflowing way.

Osho: “There is no need to run towards the ocean. Just slowly enjoy the trees, and the birds, and the people, having a trust in your heart that every river has always reached the ocean. And you cannot be the exception. Existence does not allow any exceptions. You will also reach the ocean”. (2)

I like your arithmetic too. You assume that what in your book is called Cosmic Consciousness is a nascent faculty. The faculty itself has many names. Gautama himself or someone of his early disciples called it “Nirvana”, Jesus called the new condition “the Kingdom of God” or the “Kingdom of Heaven,” Paul called it “Christ”, Mohammed called the cosmic sense “Gabriel”, Dante called it “Beatrice” (“Making Happy”), a name almost or quite equivalent to “Kingdom of Heaven”, Balzac called the new man a “specialist” and the new condition “specialism” and your great friend Walt Whitman called it “cosmic consciousness”.

You write: “From Gautama to Dante we count eighteen hundred years, within which period we have five cases. Again from Dante to the present day we count six hundred years, in which we have eight cases. That is to say, while in the earlier period there was one case to every three hundred and sixty years, in the later there was a case to each seventy-five years. In other words, cosmic consciousness has been 4.8 times more frequent during the latter period than it was during the former” (page 68). So it seems to be on its way! And if this is true and if we may add to your numbers all the people you were not aware of, boys like Basho, Chuang Tzu, Diogenes, Gurdjieff, Heraclitus, Isan, Krishnamurti, Jalaluddin Rumi, Kabir, Rabindranath Tagore, Diogenes, Ramana Maharshi, Mahavira, Bodhidharma, Kahlil Gibran, Krishna, Nanak, Nansen, Naropa, Omar Khayyam, Patanjali, Pythagoras, Rinzai, Shiva, Socrates, Ta Hui and Zarathustra, and girls like Meera, Rabiya al-Adabiya, Sahajo and Daya, and the many men and women unknown to all of us: WOW! It must be happening NOW!

By the way, do you also count more men than women here, as I do? I love Osho’s solution to this “mystery”: boys are still boys, showing, even when cosmic consciousness has dawned upon them!

Thank you again, my dear Maurice, for your firm and clear contribution to broadening our understanding of what it means to be a human being, by pointing to the experiences of human beings our society in general, and academic psychology in particular tend to ignore or to misunderstand.

With love, Shanti

(1) And the Flowers Showered, Ch 7
(2) The Dhammapada: The Way of the Buddha Vol 3, Ch 6, Q 3
(3) The Razor’s Edge, Ch 18, Q 3

Related discourse by Osho
The Cosmic Unconscious is the Mind of the Entire Universe