Isaac of Nineveh (c. 613 – c. 700)

Also known as Saint Isaac the Syrian, Isaac of Nineveh was a Middle-Eastern Christian monk and spiritual-writer who commanded the way of Eastern Orthodox Monasticism. The references to his life and work in this blog are largely from the magnificent two-volume hard-bound series, Encyclopedia of Monasticism (Vol 1 A-L) edited and compiled by William M. Johnston, published in 2000. It seems really hard to fathom, but today’s hellish war–ravaged Syria in Classical Times was a seedbed for truly brilliant and luminous ascetical spiritual writing that was the vanguard of Orthodox Monasticism and Spirituality. Abba Isaac entered the monastic-life while still quite young and who’s erudite grasp of the Ascetical Way over time eventually attracted the attention of prominent religious figures who recommended that he be ordained Bishop of Nineveh. Being exclusively of an ascetical and solitary temperament the administrative duties of this post drained him of energy and so only after five-months he abdicated this position and then retired to the wilderness of Mount Matout which was a spiritual refuge for anchorites. He later moved to the monastery of Rabban Shabur where he spent the rest of his life in Blessed Solitude. There is an anonymous West Syrian source that claims that in old age he eventually went blind and was later referred to as the “Second Didymos”, after the beloved Didymos the Blind, another spiritual ascetic of great stature. His blindness was attributed to his incessant devotion to study. Abba Isaac’s literary legacy was comprised of ascetical and mystical homilies written in Syriac. His mystical homilies influenced many monastic writers and even Dostoevsky was deeply influenced by them and even became the “source material” for his character of the Elder Zosima in his epic novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880).

One dominant characteristic theme of Isaac is his renunciation of the world out of profound solitude. It needs to be noted that his emphasis on solitude was not out of love for celibacy and the eremitic life, but primarily on direct-union with the Godhead. By the same token, like Evagrius, this experience of solitude was also about renouncing the “outer-world”, whether it be of close friends or relatives. Stillness of mind for Abba Isaac was about contemplation and illumination by the Divine Light. His eschatological insights were in league with both Evagrius and Origen. For Isaac, Gehenna is a form of purgatory rather than an eternal and irrevocable hell. He also believed in the “final reconciliation of all creatures, even the devil…in essence, universal salvation: apokatastasis.” Having passed through that purification of fire, one was then entitled to attain an angelic-state.

Isaac’s major work we will turn to now is the renowned “Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian” (Translation from the Greek and Syriac by Holy Transfiguration Monastery). Like Evagrius before him, his style of writing is most concise and directly to the point. We will be extracting portions of the homilies that are in essence “bullet points” that bear direct significance for the Way of the Unborn. The extracts will be in bold, followed by an equally concise and direct comparison of principles found within Lankavatarian Unborn Mind Zen.

Extracts from the Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian

It is just as shameful for lovers of the flesh and the belly to search out spiritual things as it is for a harlot to discourse on chastity. [Homily 4.]

The penalty is very high for anyone who dares cross the line between what is spiritually wholesome and the profane. This has much to do with the doctrine of abiding in the Tathagatagarbha vs. infamously being swallowed up with the dark desires emanating from the Alaya-vijnana.

Just as the dolphin stirs and swims about when the visible sea is still and calm, so also, when the sea of the heart is tranquil and still from wrath and anger, mysteries and divine revelations are stirred in her at all times to delight her. [Homily 15.]

Great indeed are the spiritual mansions that are splayed in the depths of stillness after the clouded waters have settled.

That which befalls a fish out of water, befalls the mind that has come out of the remembrance of God and wanders in the remembrance of the world. [Homily 15.]

This is very reminiscent from a line found within the Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn:

Left unwatched, thoughts churn within the mind like a land-bound fish whose dried-up gills suffocate for lack of water; clamoring for life, they drain the Life-Essence of Its energy…but once brought under control through the Recollective Resolve they cease to do harm and are blown away like rotting dust in the wind.

The more a man’s tongue flees talkativeness, the more his intellect is illumined so as to be able to discern deep thoughts; for the rational intellect is bemuddled by talkativeness. [Homily 15.]

His wisdom here can be likened to John of the Cross from the Western Tradition.

Stillness mortifies the outward senses and resurrects the inward movements, whereas an outward manner of life does the opposite, that is, it resurrects the outward senses and deadens the inward movements. [Homily 37.]

Yea, stillness itself is the Supreme Art of Divine Illumination, wherein the inner-life clearly outshines the outer, even those standing and abiding in the noonday sun.

What is the sign that a man has attained to purity of heart, and when does a man know that his heart has entered into purity? When he sees all men as good and none appears to him to be unclean and defiled, then in very truth his heart is pure. [Homily 37.]

Seeing the Nirvanic Buddha-nature in all men despite their proclivities.

Whenever in your path you find unchanging peace, beware: you are very far from the divine paths trodden by the weary feet of the saints. For as long as you are journeying in the way to the city of the Kingdom and are drawing nigh the city of God, this will be a sign for you: the strength of the temptations that you encounter. And the nearer you draw nigh and progress, the more temptations will multiply against you. [Homily 42.]

Never expect to experience the fullness of peace in samsara, for around the next bend Mara awaits with his dark legions.

But know this, the more Mara throws at you, the greater is your spiritual progress.

Until we find love, our labor is in the land of tares, and in the midst of tares we both sow and reap, even if our seed is the seed of righteousness. [Homily 46.]

That is, until one finds the Undiscovered Country of the Unborn, even if thy seed produces good dharma.

A mind that has found spiritual wisdom is like a man who finds a fully equipped ship at sea, and once he has gone aboard, it brings him from the sea of this world to the isle of the age to come. In like manner, the perception of the future age while in this world is like an islet in the ocean; and he who approaches it toils no longer amid the billows of the appearances of this age. [Homily 48.]

Engaging in the unobstructed Gnosis of the Buddhadharma will bring one from this world to the Other Shore of Deathless Suchness.

A swimmer dives naked into the sea until he finds a pearl; and a wise monk, stripped of everything, journeys through life until he finds in himself the Pearl, Jesus Christ; and when he finds Him, he does not seek to acquire anything else besides Him. [Homily 48.]

Yea, stripped-clean of all defilements of this Dharma-ending age, one will find solace in the beloved emerald pearl of the Unborn Mind.

A small but always persistent discipline is a great force; for a soft drop falling persistently, hollows out hard rock. [Homily 48.]

Resting in the Perpetual Recollection of the Unborn Spirit wins the day.

Ease and idleness are the destruction of the soul and they can injure her more than the demons. [Homily 48.]

Excessive Tamas injures the resolute adept even more than Mara’s best blows!

The path of God is a daily cross. No one has ascended into Heaven by means of ease, for we know where the way of ease leads and how it ends. [Homily 59.]

For a Lankavatarian, “the cross” translates as Right Effort.

A merciful man is the physician of his own soul, for as with a violent wind he drives the darkness of the passions out of his inner self. [Homily 64.]

“Good friends, when I say ‘I vow to save all sentient beings everywhere,’ it is not that I will save you, but that sentient beings, each with their own natures, must save themselves” (From the Platform Sutra).

It is not possible without temptations for a man to grow wise in spiritual warfare, to know his Provider and perceive his God, and to be secretly confirmed in his faith, save by virtue of the experience which he has gained. [Homily 72.]

The adept learns best from first-hand experience in dealing with the adversary.

This life has been given to you for repentance; do not waste it in vain pursuits. [Homily 74.]

For the Lankavatarian this translates as “turn-about” from the vain pursuits of the carnal mind and body consciousness.

There is nothing which even Satan fears so much as prayer that is offered during vigilance at night. And even if it is offered with distraction, it does not return empty, unless perhaps that which is asked for is unsuitable. [Homily 75.]

Mara fears most the night-watch that is immersed in Right Contemplation.

When a man’s thoughts are totally immersed in the delight of pursuing the wisdom treasured in the words of Scripture by means of the faculty that gains enlightenment from them, then he puts the world behind his back and forgets everything in it, and he blots out of his soul all memories that form images embodying the world. (1:5)

The hidden faculty of the Wisdom-Eye; when triggered, all other faculties take a back seat to this premiere position.

Also known as the Dharma-eye; this is seeing through prajñā—undivided awareness in perfect wisdom yoked with the Tathagatakaya (the Luminous Spirit-Body-Mind of the Tathagata). The nature of śūnyatā, or the fundamental  component of reality is fully revealed.

Be wise, then, and lay the fear of God as the foundation of your journey (Syriac; lay a foundation for your journey) and in but a few days it will bring you before the gate of the Kingdom with no windings (meanderings) on the way. (1:6)

Holy fear of being divided from the salvific grace of unimpeded union with the Unborn.

If the heart is not occupied with study (or learning) it cannot endure the turbulence of the body’s assault. (1:6)

Critical Assertion for all spiritual paths. An idle heart/mind is Mara’s playground.

Those who in their way of life are led by divine grace to be enlightened are always aware of something like a noetic ray (of light) running between the written lines which enables the mind to distinguish words spoken simply from those spoken with great meaning for the soul’s enlightenment. (1:6)

Core principle of being able to soundly deduce someone’s energy signature.

Not every man is wakened to wonder by what is said spiritually and has great power concealed in it. A word concerning virtue has need of a heart unbusied with the earth and its converse. (1:7)

One is truly virtuous who is no longer attuned with the sordid affairs of samsara.

Everything that is effected through ‘divine vision’ and on account of which a commandment is fulfilled, is wholly unseen by the eyes of the body. (1:7)

The eyes of the Body Consciousness are blind to the “divine vision” inherent in the Unborn.

Let whatever good or evil things that befall the flesh be reckoned by you as dreams. For it is not only with death that you will have release from them, but often before death they retire and leave you alone. (1:8)

One who walks with the Deathless is beyond the effects of good or evil.

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