When we get to the realization that all things are one (this is perhaps best expressed by Vedanta and Zen), we are suddenly confronted with the realization, too, that we are complicitous with everything humans do. It is a sobering, even discouraging, thought, but it also means that everything good that we do is also shared, in that cosmic sense. This is why we pursue simplicity and attempt to practice what is wise. In affecting our daily lives we affect that oneness. The existentialist objects: “The divine mathematics doesn’t add up.” But it doesn’t have to add up because we don’t know what the “numbers” are anyway. Making cosmic sums is a contrived pastime. All we really need to know is what we are doing right now.
The shaman is not a mystic. Perhaps the shaman’s wise advice is what anyone else could have given, or perhaps the shaman’s insights were the product of drugs, as Bill Porter suggests of ancient Chinese shamans and as is known of Yaqui and other North American indigenous peoples. But the mystic shares the shaman’s individuality, his direct link to the divine, circumventing (or defying) authority. Every major world religion has its mystics, all of whom did not fit the established order and its insistence on an institutional and prescribed “way.” Still, the mystic does not fight authority, and only requires solitude. At the same time, also like the shaman, the mystic could be very practical. John of the Cross was a tireless administrator, and many mystics devoted themselves to helping others, like the Russian starets or the Hindu sage Ramakrishna. Being a hermit is a mode of life that, by doing away with contrivances and getting to the real nature of living, can provide a setting for a deep appreciation of mysticism.
Who can vouch for the wisdom of the people? In an agrarian culture, left to their own devices, the people can be wise, for their only teacher is nature. Shamans thrive in such simple circumstances. Their insights are experiences, not doctrines. They teach a wisdom seen, felt, and lived, not inherited. They have no permanent or compelling authority. But this collective wisdom is broken, stolen, and destroyed by the dominance of hunter-based society. Under the hunter, nature’s voice is silenced. At first the propitiation for animal sacrifice is made, but gradually animal sacrifice is an end to itself, and the propitiation of gods merely a symbol, the propitiation of nature forgotten. Then everything must be “run” through the agencies of king or emperor and his warlords and priests. There is no room for shamans with experiences, only priests with doctrines. There is no end to sacrifice: human sacrifice and war become necessary and common. Thus does society create — or, rather, suffer — politics.
Because of the ancient emperor’s absolute authority in all spheres of existence, a good or wise emperor was essential. This is why the ethical literature from Confucius to Lao-tzu and beyond always emphasizes advice to the ruler, as if the emperor must be a sage. Because according to ancient wisdom — he must. An emperor who is not a sage leads us straight to the atrocities of modern civilization. That is what is called totalitarianism. And if the people of modern civilization are not wise also, they become complicitous in the emperor’s doings, his atrocities included. And that is what is called democracy.
We are accustomed to the fragmentation of authority among branches of government, institutions, corporations and the like in modern times. But in ancient societies, the king or emperor was typically the sole authority. Thus the emperor was the responsible model for ethical conduct. In ancient China, the emperor embodied all human potentialities. Hence Confucius made service to the emperor the axis of social and religious expression. Easy was it for him to deal with the emperor’s failure, however. “When the emperor is good,” he advised, “serve. When the emperor is evil, withdraw.” There was no system through which to work out grievances, no checks and balances, recalls or elections, no due process. “Withdraw,” he said simply.
And this was the beginning of eremicism.