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All the religions, all the prophets, all the great teachers had no other purpose than to raise mankind from the animal to the divine nature. Their purpose was to free man and to make him an inhabiter of the realm of Reality. For although the body of man is material, his reality is spiritual; although his body is darkness, his soul is light; although his body may seem to imprison him, his soul is essentially free. To prove this freedom, the prophets of God have appeared and will continue to appear, for there is no end to divine teachings and no beginning. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 2, p. 3. From Abdu’l-Baha’s address to the British Theosophical Society, London, 1913.
“I want to convince you,” my brilliant, challenging graduate school philosophy professor told the class, “that this table is not real.”
You could hear a few chuckles in the classroom, but he went on.
“The atoms of this table,” he said, knocking on it with his fist, “made from wood, are not solid. They only give us the illusion of solidity. Instead, they are mostly just space, air, a miniscule amount of spinning matter suspended in a vast vacuum.
“Atomic physicists have concluded that hydrogen atoms are,” the professor said as he wrote this long number on the board, “99.9999999999996% empty space. You may perceive this table as real, but your perceptions constantly mislead you. Our senses shape our reality—not the other way around.”
That one lecture started to change my view of the so-called “real world.” The more I considered it, the more I began to think of this physical reality we deal with every day as largely unreal. So I started studying the Baha’i view of reality, and it upended every notion I’d ever had of what qualified as real. I gradually learned that this material world, so mutable and transitory, has no lasting reality. Especially for us humans, who leave it so soon, the physical world is quite temporary. The spiritual world, which has lasting permanence and where we spend an eternity, is the true reality.
“…to free man and make him an inhabiter of the realm of reality,” Abdu’l-Baha told the Theosophical Society audience a century ago.
What did he mean?
We generally tend to call this physical world “reality.” I can see and touch the desk I’m sitting at. I can smell the flowers in the vase on the kitchen table. I can hear the sounds of the birds outside, and of the wind luffing through the treetops. My senses perceive the material world as real, even when I know, intellectually and scientifically, that my senses largely present me with an illusion.
Not only is the material world a literal mirage, it never remains the same. Unlike something real, which by definition means it endures, the material world is highly impermanent. Nothing lasts here, in this world we mistakenly call the real world. Always changing, constantly in motion, morphing from one thing to another, our bodies inhabit a physical plane of existence that never remains the same, even from one moment to the next. How can we call this physical life “reality,” then? How can we perceive anything as a true reality that has no real, lasting, genuine and authentic existence as unchanging or eternal?
We can only find true reality, the Baha’i teachings say, in the eternal.
In many ways, then, our purpose here on Earth involves discovering a deeper and more permanent reality, one that transcends the temporal and the temporary:
If the hope of man be limited to the material world, what ultimate result is he working for? A man with even a little understanding must realize that he should not emulate the worm that holds to the earth in which it is finally buried. How can man be satisfied with this low degree? How can he find happiness there? My hope is that you may become free from the material world and strive to understand the meaning of the heavenly world, the world of lasting qualities, the world of truth, the world of eternal kingliness, so that your life may not be barren of results, for the life of the material man has no fruit of reality. Lasting results are produced by reflecting the heavenly existence.
If a man become touched with the divine spark, even though he be an outcast and oppressed, he will be happy and his happiness cannot die. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 56.
Baha’is believe that the real world exists, right here, in the realities of the spiritual state of being. We don’t have to wait for a transition to the next plane of existence—we can experience that reality now, if we only detach from the material and attach ourselves to the spiritual aspects of life:
Grieve thou not over the troubles and hardships of this nether world, nor be thou glad in times of ease and comfort, for both shall pass away. This present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows. Could ever a distorted image on the desert serve as refreshing waters? No, by the Lord of Lords! Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof.
Know thou that the Kingdom is the real world, and this nether place is only its shadow stretching out. A shadow hath no life of its own; its existence is only a fantasy, and nothing more; it is but images reflected in water, and seeming as pictures to the eye. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 177-178.
Next: The Greater the Aim, the Nobler the Purpose