The opening sentence of the King James Bible reads: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. This simple sentence plants a seed that has taken root in all Western religious tradition: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It may come as shock, therefore, to discover that a thousand years ago closely guarded kabbalistic teachings in Judaism proposed a radically different translation of the Bible’s opening line. This new translation—secret for centuries—dramatically alters our understanding of the Creation story.
The Talmud refers to these esoteric teachings as Ma’asey Bereshit (the Act of Creation) and Ma’asey Merkevah (the Work of the Chariot). The sages strictly forbade anyone from teaching these ideas to more than one or two students at a time. Potential students of this esoteric lore were stringently qualified—they had to know by heart the entire scripture and its commentaries, and be highly educated, mature (at least forty years old), and deeply committed in daily practice to hundreds of traditional customs of Jewish law. These rigorous limitations were specifically designed to minimize the exposure of extraordinary teachings that could be confusing and could perhaps even incite dangerous thoughts about the nature of the Creator and Its Creation.
Many of these teachings, nonetheless, were revealed publicly in the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, published around 1300 C.E. The Zohar teaches for all to see that the initial Hebrew words of the Bible, Bereshit bara Elohim, have, in fact, two contradictory translations. One way to translate the opening line, as described above, is to treat the word Elohim, one of many Hebrew names of God, as the subject of the sentence, thus rendering the translation as the familiar phrase: “In the beginning, God created….”
The other grammatically correct way to translate these words, however, is to treat Elohim as an object, thus rendering the translation: “In the beginning ____ created God…” The blank in the sentence has an assumed “It,” which compels us to read the opening, “In the beginning, [It] created God, heaven and earth.”
If one chooses to accept the first translation, with Elohim (God) as Creator, we are immediately ensnared in a well-known series of difficulties that result from having a Creator that precedes and is separate from its Creation. Serious questions arise: If God is all good, how or why would it create evil in the universe? If God is all powerful, why doesn’t it end war forever? Moreover, if God knows everything then there can be no free will. For two thousand years, philosophers have discussed many contradictions like these and most have concluded that such paradoxes will never be resolved and thus the idea of God, as presented in the Bible, can never be proven nor disproven.
On the other hand, if one chooses to consider the mystical translation, that Elohim is part of the Creation rather than the Creator, we must ask, what is the hidden “It” that created God (Elohim)? This extraordinary “It” that precedes the God-name Elohim was a core element of hidden esoteric teachings that were first openly acknowledged in the twelfth century C.E. by a Jewish mystic named Isaac the Blind, who was also the first to give Kabbalah its name. Isaac’s kabbalistic teachings rapidly spread in a way that within a hundred years led to the publication of many parts of the Zohar.
Isaac the Blind referred to the mysterious “It” as Ein Sof (literally: without end, or Boundlessness), which he defined as “that which can not be conceived by thought.” This is a difficult teaching, for it stipulates that there are no words, no thoughts, no way to describe Ein Sof, which should not even be called an “It,” for that implies an entity.
Ein Sof is not a thing. It has no identifiable characteristics. Nothing about it can be differentiated. Nothing at all can be said or conceived about it. It transcends all thought. It is an ongoing, unending process, without limitations of time-bound ideas such as “beginning” or “ending.”
We cannot say that it has a will, for example, because the idea of God’s will is a concept, and Ein Sof defies all attributes, distinctions, or qualities. We should not even suggest that Ein Sof is infinite, for the concept “infinity” in relation to Boundlessness is like a rain drop in comparison with an endless ocean. All concepts we might conjure, theorize, or philosophize about Ein Sof are simply ideas based on limited human consciousness, reason, or faith, all of which are like wisps of vapor—vanity of vanities—that disappear in Boundlessness.
The use of language, reason, rationality, and concepts, by definition, fall far short of grasping Ein Sof. Yet, despite the inexplicability of Ein Sof, it includes the totality of the universe as we know it. By definition, nothing can be separate from Boundlessness, nothing can be excluded: no actions, words or thoughts take place outside of it. It is bigger than everything; it is beyond the idea of “beyondness.”
This means that Ein Sof is always and forever revealing itself in everything that exists and everything that happens. Moreover, as nothing can be separated from it, everything is interconnected in a Oneness, a unity, that cannot be divided. Things that in relative reality appear to be polar opposites—light and dark, hot and cold, male and female, determinism and free will, heaven and earth, good and evil, and so forth—are in absolute terms inevitably contained in the Oneness of Boundlessness.
These are simply words that readers may have seen before. What is far more important, however, than repeating these ideas is to explore how they interface with one’s everyday life. What is the practical application of an unknowable Boundlessness that is all inclusive of everything that arises in this universe?
First, let us be clear that in our ordinary language, when we conflate the idea of the dualistic God that is described in the Bible with the non-dual Ein Sof of Jewish mysticism, we completely obscure the profundity of the esoteric teachings. To avoid this kind of confusion, I refer to Ein Sof by the name “Godding,” as a verb rather than a noun to clarify that Boundlessness is a composite of ever-present, ever-moving action. This Godding process is continuously unfolding in a way that can be known in human consciousness only one way—as the arising experience of what we call “Now,” with a capital N to differentiate it from the mundane use the word “now” as a time-bound description.
Even though Boundlessness is inaccessible and indefinable, it is revealed in every moment. Isaac the Blind gave us the ultimate teaching of how to experience this ongoing Presence by following one fundamental instruction. He said that Ein Sof is a realm of absolute perfection that can be found in the annihilation of thought.
What happens when thought is annihilated? In Tibetan and other Eastern teachings it is taught that the relaxed natural mind is like a perfect mirror, reflecting precisely what is happening, without comment, judgment, or additions of any type. This mind of clarity, empty of grasping thoughts, reveals the limitlessness of Ein Sof as a unique inner light. Jewish mystics call this clarity Ohr Ein Sof, or Boundless Light. It is not light as we know it, not the light of the sun; rather it is the light of realization, which can be called pure Primordial Awareness, or simply non-dual Awareness with a capital A, once again to distinguish it from normal dualistic awareness in which there is a subject and object.
In essence, we can learn how to rest the mind in a way that becomes totally receptive. When this happens, we are capable of momentarily experiencing the pureness of non-duality in which every distinction drops away. All apparent opposites disappear. A transcendent consciousness beyond all thought and distinction spontaneously arises in this arena of pure Awareness.
It is taught in Kabbalah that our normative reality is ten degrees removed from the absolute reality of the origination of Primordial Light. What we know as the light of consciousness in our mundane world compared with the next higher level of consciousness is like a candle compared with the sun. We can barely imagine what would make our sun a tiny candle in relation to the Primordial Light of pure Awareness—a brilliance of such magnitude that all apparent differences dissolve into an ultimate Oneness that is not a number but a unity.
Just as we might speak and symbolize infinity, without having the slightest sense of its implications, so we can attempt to describe Ohr Ein Sof, the light of Boundlessness, without having any recognition whatsoever of its inconceivable dimensionless dimension. Yet, the contemplative practice of sitting quietly, mindfully, allowing each moment to arise in its own purity, brings us into momentary Awareness, like a brilliant flash, that can be repeated over and over again in a way that shifts our normative consciousness. In this potential shift, we can recognize a mysterious connection between our own inner light and the ultimate flash of Awareness.
Belief in the biblical God has benefited many people with great comfort, good deeds, charity, loving-kindness, ethics, compassion, devotion, and so forth. It has also led to inquisitions, wars, intolerance, hypocrisy, triumphalism, witch hunts, terrorism, and holocausts. We must be circumspect when engaging any belief systems, especially concerning thoughts that are rooted in fear, greed, self-aggrandizement, and any other identities that tend to lock us in a sense of separation and isolation.
These days a great deal of controversy has been stimulated by writers and teachers who are generally classified as neo-atheists. Their arguments are along those of philosophers over many centuries, with the implications that inner contradictions of the biblical God lead to conclusions that are nonsensical. As a result, these writers emphasize that the belief in such a God has brought enormous pain and suffering to the world. However, as one of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said to the proponents of neo-atheistic arguments: “I don’t believe in the same God that you don’t believe in!” Not believing in the biblical stories of a many faceted Godhead does not necessarily lead to atheism.
Belief systems, by definition, are limited ideas, constructs of human consciousness. Ein Sof, on the other hand is not something that lends itself to conjecture; it is not something that can be described. We are inevitably uncertain about Boundlessness, we cannot know from one moment to the next how it will express itself. We discover it only in the context of how each moment unfolds, but can never predict what the next moment will bring. This uncertainty leads to a wisdom teaching offered by Zen master Alan Watts over a half century ago in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, which sums up a basic truth of yielding to the inevitability of each arising moment. This ability to transcend all belief systems is what the Godding process is all about.
The realization of inseparability eventually brings us to the comprehension that our free will is identical with the Godding process. There is no past or future in the Oneness; it is always Now. By allowing time and space to momentarily melt away in a completely naked mind, we slowly realize that our own inner light and the flash of pure Awareness are not separate, just as an ice cube is not separate from the water in which it floats. The apparent solidity of ice is illusory; it will eventually melt. So too will our illusion of being separate from Boundlessness melt into the Oneness. This does not develop out of a belief; it must be directly experienced.
We often miss this direct experience in our addiction to the busy-ness of our own minds. We are generally oblivious to what is happening Now. We are entranced by our personal dramas. We continually reflect on a past that cannot be changed, or a future that cannot be tamed, or worrying about how we are viewed by others. To experience the Ohr Ein Sof, we must learn how to let the mind go for a moment, relaxing our incessant pursuit of an identity that is always attempting to be in control of things.
This kind of mental activity can be modified by simply resting the mind at regular intervals, allowing ourselves to become more familiar with the awesome unfolding of each moment. Seeing this clearly, we begin to experience the reflection of the constant light of pure Awareness that continues to shine within each and every one of us at all times.
Quieting ourselves in the midst of the continuous flow of movement and sound, the only thought that one permits oneself is, “What is this?” We quickly realize that whatever arises—every single movement, every sound, indeed everything that happens—is simply an expression of reality as we know it. A scientist might say it is all Energy. A theologian might say it is all God. A mystic might say it is all Boundlessness.
In these moments, one’s sense of oneself seems to dissolve and all thoughts, inner dramas, anxieties, mental disturbances, anger, and so forth, quickly disappear. The resting mind releases all tension. One can practice this technique many times a day for a few moments each time, and this will acclimate one to the ability to spontaneously, briefly, release the clinging and confused mind.
This potential to quiet the mind is particularly beneficial when a not-so-pleasant or disturbing experience occurs, which happens regularly in our lives. How do we respond to difficult encounters? Normally, we get agitated and deal with the event in a predictable, conditioned manner, which may not be particularly skillful. But when we have had enough simple repetitions of Awareness by briefly relaxing the mind, we can discover the astonishing realization that we do not have to be captives of old patterns.
The potential for Awareness is present in every moment. The direct experience of this Awareness seems to be the closest we can come to the mystical fragrance of Boundlessness. It allows us to be completely open to the inevitability of each arising moment. The ability to recognize the enormous opportunity to dwell in this Presence becomes a continuous, unending fact of life.
A single momentary experience is the beginning of a new way to break through the patterns of our conditioned lives and thus open the gates of liberation—a freedom unlike any we have ever known. We truly are blessed to have the human consciousness to be able to recognize this Awareness—to be aware of Awareness—and through it we can learn to open ourselves to the flowing, continuous unfolding of the Godding process, always here and now in our everyday lives.
This response was previously published in the Summer, ’08 edition of Parabola, vol. 33:2.