Sefirot - The Tree of Life

(Copyright Lars Charles Mazzaola, 2001)

Sefirot Treeof life

"So how did you do?"  This is a familiar question that we are frequently asked by friends when we complete a project.  The question takes on even more importance when we ask the question of ourselves.  The minute we begin to question ourselves in this way, we are engaged in the fundamental process of education:  self assessment.  Often a simple incident will cause us to reassess our lives in a careful manner.  Since the values that come into play during this kind of reflection are usually deeper than the ones used in academic settings, we often find unexpected insights and compensations during this process.  What at first might appear to be successful or important might turn out to be limited or trivial, and vice versa.

Education is driven by this dynamic of self assessment.  Various cultures have created tools to facilitate this process.   In this article we will examine several methods of self assessment that have been used in the Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian traditions.  Following the work of Carolyn Myss (1997), we will use the image of the Tree of Life to integrate these insights.

We will begin with the Sufis, a group of Islamic teachers who are well known for their aphorisms and stories.  Sufi  masters claim that people can be classified into three categories:  raw, cooked, and burnt.  When people are raw, they are undeveloped and unrefined, lacking skill and grace.  If it is true that small people talk about others, mediocre people talk about themselves, and big people talk about ideas, then raw people are small and mediocre.  They gossip, exaggerate, spread rumors, and sow conflict, destroying the peace of families and society.  Attempting to raise themselves up by bringing other people down, raw people dominate the conversation, constantly update their image on Facebook, bore you with their stories, their pets, their woes, their hurts, their grades, their awards, their jobs, their spouses, their children, and their fears.  Skillful at monopolizing, they are the guests whom every host dreads.

Can this raw state be transformed?  Sufi masters say that it can.  What is required is the spark of knowledge, which initiates the long process of cooking.  This is a large order.  It usually takes two parents, several brothers and sisters, many school mates, dozens of teachers, a good and patient spouse, several mishaps, and about five decades of trial and error, before the cooking really begins.  The result?  Sufi masters say that the result is a modest, caring, responsible human being, whose awareness, common sense, and poise produce knowledge, responsibility, and happiness.  No one person can take credit for this achievement, for there are many cooks at work at one time or another.  And whatever the virtues of each of the cooks, it makes no difference in the end, for it is the fire that does the transforming work.

The final stage, according to Sufi masters, appears only after prolonged cooking.  Cooking eliminates excessive ego--called egotism.  The heat must be turned up and held there, against all the rules of ordinary cooking, until the student (disciple) is burnt.  Being burnt means that all traces of egotism are consumed in the fire of service and love.  However, the ego, which expresses our individuality and our unique perspective, remains.  A time-honored exercise to "turn up the heat" is to avoid using the word "I" in your conversation, first, for a day, then for several days.  Next, avoid using the word "I" in your thought....  Then, when you have mastered that, use the word "I" when necessary....  Sufi masters say that those who are burnt leave no trace of egotism.  They walk through a room and do not leave a "trail of smoke"--a trail of self concern, hunger for approval, or discord.  As the Tao Te Ching puts it:  "No Self interest?  Self fulfilled" (Poem 2).

Using these three stages--raw, cooked, and burnt--is a simple way to begin the process of self assessment.  As a matter of fact, almost every culture that we know has elaborated them into several more stages.  The Jewish tradition. for example, bases much of its wisdom on the image of the Tree of Life, the Sefirot, whose ten Spheres of Manifestation serve as reflective mirrors of the divine entrance into the human world.  The Sefirot represent the manner in which Consciousness (God, YHWH) expresses Itself in Creation.  Since Consciousness is reflected in the human mind, the ten Sefirot are also mirrors of self development and attainment, which can also be used for self assessment and understanding.  The Tree of Life with its ten Sefirot is usually arranged into seven planes, as illustrated above.

As Carolyn Myss (1997) has pointed out, the diagram of the Tree of Life, which is based on the sacred number 7,  is similar both to the chakra system of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Yoga as well as to the sacramental system of Christianity.  Modern anthropological research indicates that the Tree of Life symbol reaches far back into prehistory.  Almost every tradition that we know of has mandalas or sacred diagrams (yantras) that include or suggest it.  As illustrated in the diagram above, all mandalas have a borderline that separates the outside (the profane) from the inside (the sacred).  The sacred space inside can be accessed only through special portals or doorways, which are guarded by protective deities that are often are portrayed as angels, demons, or animals.  Once a doorway has been crossed, a labyrinthine path (tao, Chinese, or marga, Sanskrit) opens before the viewer.

There are several doorways that must be found and crossed  before entering Level One (Shekinah).  Only when we see that life is a mandala, a cosmos (Greek, "a jewel or radiant work of art") does the first doorway appear, signaling that we are ready to enter its depth.  That is, only after "the doors of perception have been cleansed" (Blake, Marriage of Heaven and Hell) can we understand the first level of life.  When this happens--sometimes in childhood, before the confusion of adolescence and adult life; sometimes at a critical juncture in adolescence; sometimes only at death, as in the case of  in Tolstoy's hero, Ivan Ilich--do we begin to understand the Presence that mystics call the "Ground or Root" (Eckhart).  The first portal symbolizes the transformation that occurs when we come face to face with the Holy.  At this moment, our perception changes:  World becomes Universe, a word that literally means "turning around" (Latin, verso) "one point" (uni).  This one point is variously called the Cosmic Nucleus, Tao, YHWH, GOD (Generator, Operator, Destroyer), Great Spirit, or Life Force.  A momentous change in perception occurs when World is transformed into Universe.  No longer do we simply see matter.  Instead, we see the Spiritual Reality behind Creation, which is the Great Family--dust particles, stones, plants, animals, humans, sky, water, stars, galaxies--all of which are interconnected, each a pearl strung on an infinite, luminous web.  The portal opens--and we enter-- in our own landscape, at our own time, unique to us all.  This is the gate that is represented by the outside border of all mandalas.

In the Zen tradition, this portal corresponds to the third of  ten famous wood blocks.  The first wood block is called Seeking the Ox, the preliminary stage that begins when an individual genuinely asks the philosophic question, "What is Real?  What is True?  What is Permanent?"

Seeking the ox

The second woodblock in this series is called Finding the Tracks, which connotes partial discernment of the Truth, which is approached through scripture, teaching, instruction, and preliminary insight.  The individual does not have knowledge, but only opinion and belief.

finding the tracks

The third woodblock is known as First Glimpse of the Ox, a state akin to entering the mandala, when the Source of Creation is intuitively glimpsed through an epiphany.  This is the portal to Level One (Shekinah).  It occurs through an intuitive experience--by seeing what cannot be seen, by touching what cannot be felt, by hearing what cannot be heard (Tao).  All teachers say that the experience of the door opening occurs, not at our bidding, but when the time comes, when the time is right, when we have been made ready for it.

First glimpse of the ox

These portals being opened, at least in virtual reality, let us briefly look at what can be seen.

Level One:  Honoring the Family (Shekinah).  What is involved at this stage is accepting and respecting all life forms as having equal dignity and importance in the Family of Creation.  Honoring the Family has may dimensions.  At its deepest level, it means honoring all forms of life.  In a more limited sense, it means that all children, not just "ours", deserve equal respect, nurture, and attention.  Each human being is the inheritor of a rich collective experience, and it is the responsibility of each generation to educate and train all of its young to understand and appreciate that human heritage.  Honoring the Family means that all Tribes--nations, languages, ethnic groups, and religious communities--deserve to be treated with equal respect, for each is an indispensable part of the whole.  Non injury is the gateway to this level of consciousness, which corresponds to the sacrament of Baptism in Christianity and to the first chakra of Yoga.  The first chakra controls the propensities of physical desire (kama), wealth and the search for meaning (artha), the search for righteousness (dharma), and the search for permanent liberation, salvation (moksa).  Physically, the first chakra is reflected in the structural support system, the base of the spine, the bones, the feet, and the immune system.  Physical dysfunctions of this chakra involve lower back pain, rectal and immune disorders, and depression.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of safety and security (Myss, 2001).  Pride is the major obstacle to this gateway.

In the Zen tradition, this portal corresponds to Catching the Ox.  We are beginning to see the whole picture, not only metaphysically, but physically, socially, and politically as well.

Catching the ox

Level Two:  Honoring One Another (Yesod). What is involved at this stage is honoring male and female--through sacred union and covenant.  Since sex, like fire, is an expression of the divine energy and creativity, it should be honored and respected.  Like fire, sex is best respected by building a proper shelter for it, by giving it a container, so it remains positive, not a consuming or destructive force.  Male and female power are honored through chastity before marriage and fidelity in marriage, which occurs by exchanging vows made in the presence of a community.  Honor is the gateway to this level of reality, which corresponds to the sacrament of Communion in Christianity.  It also corresponds to the second chakra of Yoga (and the Eastern tradition of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism).  Physically, the second chakra expresses itself in the sexual organs, the large intestine, pelvis, lower vertebrae, appendix, bladder, and hip. Physical dysfunctions of this chakra involve the lower back, male and female reproductive problems, sexual potency, and urinary problems.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of guilt, money, sex, control, and creativity  (Myss, 2001).  Indulgence, lack of common sense, lust, cruelty, and shame are the major obstacles to this gateway.  At the center of this level of consciousness, when it has been expanded through deep meditation, is "the feeling that the Supreme Consciousness is present, is here with me" (Anandamurti, 1981, p. 61). This is the first stage of samadhi, of divine ecstasy.
 

In the Zen tradition, this portal is corresponds to Taming the Ox.  The sexual instinct is enormously powerful.  Its current must be channeled upwards to the higher chakras and thus tamed. It must not be eradicated, repressed, or suppressed.

Taming the ox

Level Three:  Honoring Oneself (Hod and Nezah).  What is involved at this stage is personal power, the ability to survive and thrive.  Personal power is actually chastity at a higher level.  Personal power means the ability to contain oneself in self-respect, without giving into--or lashing out against--negative forces, both inside and outside. Hod means "integrity, a sense inner worth that leads to appreciation and gratitude."  Connected to the power of prophecy, Hod is the ability to count our blessings, even when surrounded by those who see only obstacles and curses--as did Job's wife and his comforters. Hod means the ability to focus on what is available, not what is missing. Nezah, the male counterpart to Hod, means  "endurance and stamina," the ability to stick with a project.  At its deepest level, Nezah means "sticking to life"--no matter what the odds.  It means to persevere, to endure--not to leave a task (Path, Work, Life) before it is completed.  Dignity is the gateway to this level of consciousness, which corresponds to the sacrament of Confirmation in Christianity.  It also corresponds to the third chakra of Yoga and the Eastern tradition.  Physically, the third chakra expresses itself in the organs of the abdomen.  Physical dysfunctions of this chakra include arthritis, rheumatism, ulcers, diabetes, food disorders, the liver, and the adrenal glands.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of trust, fear, self-esteem, and criticism (Myss, 2001).  Envy, shyness, sadistic tendency, sleepiness, melancholia, peevishness, yearning for acquisition, to own and to be owned, infatuation, hatred, and fear are the major obstacles to this gateway. At the center of this level of consciousness, when it has been expanded through deep meditation, is the feeling that "the Supreme Consciousness is in close proximity to me, is very near to me" (Anandamurti, 1981, p. 62).  This is the second stage of samadhi, of divine ecstasy.

In the Zen tradition, this portal corresponds to Riding the Ox Home.  The war within, the power struggle, is engaged.  The Self and the personality are beginning to be aligned.  The Self (Ox) guides and leads the personality (the rider, the ego).

Riding the ox

Level Four:  Honoring One's Spouse (Tiferet). Only after we have learned to honor the universal family (Level One), each other (Level Two), and ourselves (Level Three) are we ready to enter the next level, the level of emotional power, the level of the heart.  At this level, we expand our sense of responsibility to include our spouse.  In esoteric life, the spouse is the soul.  This is the level of Tiferet.  It is symbolized by the Sun, whose radiance and beauty are expressed in deep, devotional love.  The bond of Tiferet is special, for it is grounded in compassion, not desire, and it is expressed by selfless love, which gives without demand for return and gives still more without complaint.  Consideration is the gateway of this level of consciousness, which corresponds to the sacrament of Marriage in Christianity and to the fourth chakra of Yoga and the Eastern tradition.  Physically, the fourth chakra expresses itself in the heart, lungs, circulatory system, shoulders, arms, upper torso, and breasts.  Physical dysfunctions of this chakra include heart failure, asthma, allergies, lung cancer, upper back problems, and breast cancer.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of love, resentment, grief, commitment, forgiveness, and hope  (Myss, 2001).  Worry, possessiveness, vanity, avarice, hypocrisy, and argumentativeness are the major obstacles to this gateway.  At the center of this level of consciousness, when it has been expanded through deep meditation, is the feeling that "the Supreme Consciousness is in close contact with me" (Anandamurti, 1981, p. 62).  This is the third stage of samadhi, of divine ecstasy.

In the Zen tradition, this corresponds to Ox Forgotten, Self Alone.  "In the dharma, there is no two-ness.  Like the moon which has broken through the clouds, one ray of luminous light shines eternally" (Reps).

Ox Forgotten

Level Five:  Surrendering to Divine Will (Din and Hesed). What is involved at this stage is benevolent speech in the service of higher aims, based on two powers, Din and Hesed. Din connotes the highest form of judgment, the ability to separate the trivial from the essential.  To do this, it must be linked to Hesed, a sense of mercy and broad-mindedness, which overlooks the petty and the negative, while at the same time remaining realistic and positive.  This level is illustrated by spiritual teachers of the highest rank, who use consummate tact and precision in their words, instruction, decisions, and daily life.  Surrender is the gateway to this level of consciousness, which corresponds to the sacrament of Confession in Christianity and to the fifth chakra of Yoga and the Eastern tradition.  Physically, the fifth chakra expresses itself in the throat, thyroid, neck, mouth, teeth, gums, and hypothalamus.  Physical dysfunctions of this chakra include raspy throat, mouth ulcers, gum disorders, TMJ, scoliosis, and thyroid problems.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of making choices, addiction, judgment, and knowledge (Myss, 2001).   Vanity and a sense of ego are the major obstacles to this gateway.  At the center of this level of consciousness, when it has been expanded through deep meditation, is "the feeling that I am one with the Supreme Consciousness" (Anandamurti, 1981, p. 62).  This is the fourth stage of samadhi, of divine ecstasy.

In the Zen tradition, this level is known as Both Self and Ox Forgotten.  When this state is realized, "the comprehension of the spirit of the ancient teachers comes--at last" (Reps).

Both self and ox forgotten

Level Six:  Seeking Only Truth (Binah and Hokmah). What is involved at this level of consciousness is insight, pure and simple.  It results from the marriage of two powers, Binah and Hokmah. Binah means "understanding"--the type of understanding that comes when we walk in the footsteps of others, until we know them, compassionately, from the inside.  We literally "stand under" them.  We can see and appreciate their ground, even though it might not be entirely correct.  We see, as one of my teachers put it, "what is what, and who is who."  Hokmah means "wisdom"--the accumulation of years of training, knowledge, experience, correction, and the ceaseless effort to get it right.  Wisdom's fundamental quality is modesty.  People who have wisdom deflect compliments, refuse "to shine," do not "make speeches," and "walk small" (as the Chinese proverb puts it).  Why?  Because they know that their gift of insight is given by grace.  It comes from years (if not lifetimes) of invoking the Supreme, the Divine Presence.  People who are truly wise also know that their wisdom is fallible.  Only manipulators claim infallibility.  First and foremost, wisdom is the ability to see our own errors.  It starts with the self and never leaves it.  Love of truth is the gateway to this level of consciousness.  It corresponds to the sacrament of Ordination in Christianity.  It is related to the sixth chakra of Yoga and the Eastern tradition.  Physically, the sixth chakra expresses itself in the brain, nervous system, eyes, ears, nose, and pituitary gland.  Physical dysfunctions of this chakra include brain tumors, strokes, neurological disorders, blindness, deafness, and learning disabilities.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of self evaluation, truth, intellect, feelings of adequacy, openness, and emotional intelligence (Myss, 2001).  At the center of this level of consciousness, when it has been expanded through deep meditation, is "the feeling that I am the Supreme Consciousness" (Anandamurti, 1981, p. 62).  This is the fifth stage of samadhi, of divine ecstasy.

In the Zen tradition, this level corresponds to Returning to the Source.

Level Seven:  Letting Ego Out, Letting God In (Keter). What  is involved at this stage of consciousness is Divine Life--nothing less, nothing more.  It is accessed purely by grace, after lifetimes of preparation, purification, service, and sacrifice.  The Hebrew word, Keter, means "There is only Life."   It means that the highest level of reality is the only reality.  It is characterized by the fluid succession of the present which is always flowing into itself (I AM THAT I AM).  This is the deep well of ongoing creation--"the smooth, splendid, fresh, ever-new, Great Completeness" alluded to in Tibetan Buddhist texts.  Once understood, this level of cognition becomes at the same time "the base, the path, and the fruit."  Of what?  In the Tibetan tradition, it is the base, path, and fruit "of glorious, heroic mind, the mind of all Buddhas" (Klein, 2000, p. 565).  Those who are lifted into this world of the Eternal Present have reached the goal that was hidden in very beginning of self reflection.  Grace is the gateway to this level of consciousness.  It corresponds to the sacrament of Extreme Unction in Christianity and is related to the seventh chakra of Yoga and the Eastern tradition.  Physically, the seventh chakra expresses itself in the muscular and skeletal system.  Physical dysfunctions of this chakra include paralysis, bone cancer, genetic disorders, and multiple sclerosis.  Psychologically, it is expressed in the issues of proper values, courage, humanitarianism, faith, inspiration, and spirituality  (Myss, 2001).   This level of consciousness is experienced as Bliss or Infinite Happiness in deep meditation; it is beyond words, feeling, or thought  (Anandamurti, 1981, p. 62).  This is the sixth and last stage of samadhi, of divine ecstasy.

In the Zen tradition, this corresponds to Entering the Marketplace with Helping Hands.  The Journey is complete.  The Work is finished.  Where else is there to go but back to the beginning?  Beginning is here, not there.  Why not serve, as best as possible--not even saying a word, not even trying to reach those who perhaps have not yet asked the first question? Everywhere is Home.

Entering the marketplace with helping hands

If this is an accurate map of reality, then the next step is to determine where you are.  That might be more difficult than it appears.  Look deeply, search for a teacher to help, and, if you are lucky, the Way will appear.

References

Anandamurti, S. (1981).  The spiritual philosophy of .... Denver, Ananda Marga.
Klein, A. (1999).  The great completeness, White (Ed.), Tantra in practice.  Princeton.
Myss, C.  (1999).  Energy anatomy.  Boulder:  Sounds True.
Reps, P.  (1959).  Zen flesh, zen bones.  New York:  Anchor.
Segal, E.  (1995).  The 10 sefirot of the kabbalah 

Chinese symbol