Chapter 1: The Tree of Life

By Colin Low | April 14, 2002

At the root of the Kabbalistic view of the world are three fundamental concepts and they provide a natural place to begin. The three concepts are force, form and consciousness and these words are used in an abstract way, as the following examples illustrate:

  • high pressure steam in the cylinder of a steam engine provides a force. The engine is a form which constrains the force.
  • a river runs downhill under the force of gravity. The river channel is a form which constrains the water to run in a well defined path.
  • someone wants to get to the centre of a garden maze. The hedges are a form which constrain that person’s ability to walk as they please.
  • a diesel engine provides the force which drives a boat forwards. A rudder constrains its course to a given direction.
  • a politician wants to change the law. The legislative framework of the country is a form which he or she must follow if the change is to be made legally.
  • water sits in a bowl. The force of gravity pulls the water down. The bowl is a form which gives its shape to the water.
  • a stone falls to the ground under the force of gravity. Its acceleration is constrained to be equal to the force divided by the mass of the stone.
  • I want to win at chess. The force of my desire to win is constrained within the rules of chess.
  • I see something in a shop window and have to have it. I am constrained by the conditions of sale (do I have enough money, is it in stock).
  • cordite explodes in a gun barrel and provides an explosive force on a bullet. The gas and the bullet are constrained by the form of the gun barrel.
  • I want to get a passport. The government won’t give me one unless I fill in lots of forms in precisely the right way.
  • I want a university degree. The university won’t give me a degree unless I attend certain courses and pass various assessments.

In all these examples there is something which is causing change to take place (“a force”) and there is something which causes change to take place in a defined way (“a form”). Without being too pedantic it is possible to identify two very different types of example here:

  1. examples of natural physical processes (e.g. a falling stone) where the force is one of the natural forces known to physics (e.g. gravity) and the form is is some combination of physical laws which constrain the force to act in a well defined way.
  2. examples of people wanting something, where the force is some ill-defined concept of “desire”, “will”, or “drives”, and the form is one of the forms we impose upon ourselves (the rules of chess, the Law, polite behaviour etc.).

Despite the fact that the two different types of example are “only metaphorically similar”, Kabbalists see no fundamental distinction between them. To the Kabbalist there are forces which cause change in the natural world, and there are corresponding psychological forces which drive us to change both the world and ourselves, and whether these forces are natural or psychological they are rooted in the same place: consciousness. Similarly, there are forms which the component parts of the physical world seem to obey (natural laws) and there are completely arbitrary forms we create as part of the process of living (the rules of a game, the shape of a mug, the design of an engine, the syntax of a language) and these forms are also rooted in the same place: consciousness. It is a Kabbalistic axiom that there is a prime cause which underpins all the manifestations of force and form in both the natural and psychological world and that prime cause I have called consciousness for lack of a better word.

Consciousness is undefinable. We know that we are conscious in different ways at different times – sometimes we feel free and happy, at other times trapped and confused, sometimes angry and passionate, sometimes cold and restrained – but these words describe manifestations of consciousness. We can define the manifestations of consciousness in terms of manifestations of consciousness, which is about as useful as defining an ocean in terms of waves and foam. Anyone who attempts to define consciousness itself tends to come out of the same door as they went in. We have lots of words for the phenomena of consciousness – thoughts, feelings, beliefs, desires, emotions, motives and so on – but few words for the states of consciousness which give rise to these phenomena, just as we have many words to describe the surface of a sea, but few words to describe its depths. Kabbalah provides a vocabulary for states of consciousness underlying the phenomena, and one of the purposes of these notes is to explain this vocabulary, not by definition, but mostly by metaphor and analogy. The only genuine method of understanding what the vocabulary means is by attaining various states of consciousness in a predictable and reasonably objective way, and Kabbalah provides practical methods for doing this.

A fundamental premise of the Kabbalistic model of reality is that there is a pure, primal, and undefinable state of consciousness which manifests as an interaction between force and form. This is virtually the entire guts of the Kabbalistic view of things, and almost everything I have to say from now on is based on this trinity of consciousness, force, and form. Consciousness comes first, but hidden within it is an inherent duality; there is an energy associated with consciousness which causes change (force), and there is a capacity within consciousness to constrain that energy and cause it to manifest in a well-defined way (form).

                       First Principle
                             of
                     /  Consciousness   \
                    /                    \
                   /                      \
               Capacity                   Raw
               to take  ________________ Energy
                Form
                          Figure 1.

What do we get out of raw energy and an inbuilt capacity for form and structure? Is there yet another hidden potential within this trinity waiting to manifest? There is. If modern physics is to be believed we get matter and the physical world. The cosmological Big Bang model of raw energy surging out from an infintesimal point and condensing into basic forms of matter as it cools, then into stars and galaxies, then planets, and ultimately living creatures, has many points of similarity with the Kabbalistic model. In the Big Bang model a soup of energy condenses according to some yet-to-be-formulated Grand-Universal-Theory into our physical world. What Kabbalah does suggest (and modern physics most certainly does not!) is that matter and consciousness are the same stuff, and differ only in the degree of structure imposed – matter is consciousness so heavily structured and constrained that its behaviour becomes describable using the regular and simple laws of physics. This is shown in Fig. 2. The primal, first principle of consciousness is synonymous with the idea of “God”.

                       First Principle
                             of
                     /  Consciousness   \
                    /         |          \
                   /          |           \
               Capacity       |           Raw
               to take  _____________ Energy/Force
                Form          |
                   \          |           /
                    \         |          /
                     \        |         /
                            Matter
                          The World

                          Figure 2

The glyph in Fig. 2 is the basis for the Tree of Life. The first principle of consciousness is called Kether, which means Crown. The raw energy of consciousness is called Chokhmah or Wisdom, and the capacity to give form to the energy of consciousness is called Binah, which is sometimes translated as Understanding, and sometimes as Intelligence. The outcome of the interaction of force and form, the physical world, called Malkuth or Kingdom. This quaternery is a Kabbalistic representation of God-the-Knowable, in the sense that it the most primitive representation of God we are capable of comprehending; paradoxically, Kabbalah also contains a notion of God-the-Unknowable which transcends this glyph, and is called En Soph. There is not much I can say about En Soph, and what I can say I will postpone for later.

God-the-Knowable has four aspects, two male and two female: Kether and Chokhmah are both represented as male, and Binah and Malkuth are represented as female. One of the titles of Chokhmah is Abba, which means Father, and one of the titles of Binah is Aima, which means Mother, so you can think of Chokhmah as God-the-Father, and Binah as God-the-Mother. Malkuth is the daughter, the female spirit of God-as-Matter, and it would not be wildly wrong to think of her as Mother Earth. One of the more pleasant things about Kabbalah is that its symbolism gives equal place to both male and female.

And what of God-the-Son? Is there also a God-the-Son in Kabbalah? There is, and this is the point where Kabbalah tackles the interesting problem of thee and me. The glyph in Fig. 2 is a model of consciousness, but not of self-consciousness, and self-consciousness throws an interesting spanner in the works.

The Fall

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Self-consciousness is like a mirror in which consciousness sees itself reflected. Self-consciousness is modelled in Kabbalah by making a copy of figure 2.

                        Consciousness
                             of
                     /  Consciousness   \
                    /         |          \
                   /          |           \
              Consciousness   |      Consciousness
                   of  ________________   of
                  Form        |       Energy/Force
                   \          |           /
                    \         |          /
                     \        |         /
                        Consciousness
                            of the
                            World

                          Figure 3    

Figure 3. is Figure 2. reflected through self-consciousness. The overall effect of self-consciousness is to add an additional layer to Figure 2. as follows:

                       First Principle
                             of
                     /  Consciousness   \
                    /         |          \
                   /          |           \
               Capacity       |           Raw
               to take  _____________ Energy/Force
                Form          |
                   \          |           /
                    \         |          /
                     \        |         /
                        Consciousness
                             of
                     /  Consciousness   \
                    /         |          \
                   /          |           \
              Consciousness   |      Consciousness
                   of  ________________   of
                  Form        |       Energy/Force
                   \          |           /
                    \         |          /
                     \        |         /
                        Consciousness
                            of the
                            World
                              |
                              |
                              |
                            Matter
                          The World

                          Figure 4

Fig. 2 is sometimes called “the Garden of Eden” because it represents a primal state of consciousness. The effect of self-consciousness as shown in Fig. 4 is to drive a wedge between the First Principle of Consciousness (Kether) and that Consciousness realized as matter and the physical world (Malkuth). This is called “the Fall”, after the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. From a Kabbalistic point of view the story of Eden, with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the serpent and the temptation, and the casting out from the Garden has a great deal of meaning in terms of understanding the evolution of consciousness.
Self-consciousness introduces four new states of consciousness: the Consciousness of Consciousness is called Tipheret, which means Beauty; the Consciousness of Force/Energy is called Netzach, which means Victory or Firmness; the Consciousness of Form is called Hod, which means Splendour or Glory, and the Consciousness of Matter is called Yesod, which means Foundation. These four states have readily observable manifestations, as shown below in Fig. 5:

                           The Self
                        Self-Importance
                         Self-Sacrifice
                     /        |         \
                    /         |          \
                   /          |           \
                Language      |         Emotions
              Abstraction_______________Drives
                 Reason       |         Feelings
                   \          |           /
                    \         |          /
                     \        |         /
                      \   Perception   /
                          Imagination
                           Instinct
                         Reproduction

                           Figure 5

Figure 4. is almost the complete Tree of Life, but not quite – there are still two states missing. The inherent capacity of consciousness to take on structure and objectify itself (Binah, God-the-Mother) is reflected through self-consciousness as a perception of the limitedness and boundedness of things. We are conscious of space and time, yesterday and today, here and there, you and me, in and out, life and death, whole and broken, together and apart. We see things as limited and bounded and we have a perception of form as something “created” and “destroyed”. My car was built a year ago, but it was smashed yesterday. I wrote an essay, but I lost it when my computer crashed. My granny is dead. The river changed its course. A law has been repealed. I broke my coffee mug. The world changes, and what was here yesterday is not here today. This perception acts like an “interface” between the quaternary of consciousness which represents “God”, and the quaternary which represents a living self-conscious being, and two new states are introduced to represent this interface. The state which represents the creation of new forms is called Chesed, which means Mercy, and the state which represents the destruction of forms is called Gevurah, which means Strength. This is shown in Fig. 6. The objectification of forms which takes place in a self-conscious being, and the consequent tendency to view the world in terms of limitations and dualities (time and space, here and there, you and me, in and out, God and Man, good and evil…) produces a barrier to perception which most people rarely overcome, and for this reason it has come to be called the Abyss. The Abyss is also marked on Figure 6.

                       First Principle
                             of
                     /  Consciousness   \
                    /         |          \
                   /          |           \
               Capacity       |           Raw
               to take  _____________ Energy/Force
                Form          |            |
                  |\          |           /|
                  | \         |          / |
              --------------Abyss---------------
                  |   \       |        /   |
             Destruction      |        Creation
                 of_____\_____|_____ /____of
                Form     \    |     /    Form
                  | \     \   |    /    /  |
                  |  \     \  |   /    /   |
                  |   \ Consciousness /    |
                  |          of            |
                  |  /  Consciousness   \  |
                  | /         |          \ |
                  |/          |           \|
              Consciousness   |      Consciousness
                   of  ________________   of
                \ Form        |       Energy/Force
                 \ \          |           / /
                  \ \         |          / /
                  \  \        |         /  /
                   \    Consciousness     /
                   \         of           /
                    \     the World      /
                     \                  /
                      \       |        /
                       \      |       /
                        \     |      /
                            Matter
                          The World

                           Figure 6

The diagram in Fig. 6 is called the Tree of Life. The “constructionist” approach I have used to justify its structure is a little unusual, but the essence of my presentation can be found in the “Zohar” under the guise of the Macroprosopus and Microprosopus, although in this form it is not readily accessible to the average reader. My attempt to show how the Tree of Life can be derived out of pure consciousness through the interaction of an abstract notion of force and form was not intended to be a convincing exercise from an intellectual point of view – the Tree of Life is primarily a gnostic rather than a rational or intellectual explanation of consciousness and its interaction with the physical world.
The Tree is composed of 10 states or sephiroth (sephiroth plural, sephira singular) and 22 interconnecting paths. The age of this diagram is unknown: there is enough information in the 13th. century “Sepher ha Zohar” to construct this diagram, and the doctrine of the sephiroth has been attributed to Isaac the Blind in the 12th. century, but we have no certain knowledge of its origin. It probably originated sometime in the interval between the 6th. and 13th. centuries AD. The origin of the word “sephira” is unclear – it is almost certainly derived from the Hebrew word for “number” (SPhR), but it has also been attributed to the Greek word for “sphere” and even to the Hebrew word for a sapphire (SPhIR). With a characteristic aptitude for discovering hidden meanings everywhere, Kabbalists find all three derivations useful, so take your pick.
In the language of earlier Kabbalistic writers the sephiroth represented ten primeval emanations of God, ten focii through which the energy of a hidden, absolute and unknown Godhead (En Soph) propagated throughout the creation, like white light passing through a prism. The sephiroth can be interpreted as aspects of God, as states of consciousness, or as nodes akin to the Chakras in the occult anatomy of a human being .
I have left out one important detail from the structure of the Tree. There is an eleventh “something” which is definitely *not* a sephira, but is often shown on modern representations of the Tree. The Kabbalistic “explanation” runs as follows: when Malkuth “fell” out of the Garden of Eden (Fig. 2) it left behind a “hole” in the fabric of the Tree, and this “hole”, located in the centre of the Abyss, is called Daath, or Knowledge. Daath is *not* a sephira; it is a hole. This may sound like gobbledy-gook, and in the sense that it is only a metaphor, it is.
The completed Tree of Life with the Hebrew titles of the sephiroth is shown below in Fig. 7.

                           En Soph
                 /-------------------------\
                /                           \
               (            Kether           )
                       /   (Crown)    \
                      /       |        \
                     /        |         \
                    /         |          \
                Binah         |        Chokhmah
            (Understanding)__________  (Wisdom)
             (Intelligence)   |           |
                  |\          |          /|
                  | \       Daath       / |
                  |  \   (Knowledge)   /  |
                  |   \       |       /   |
               Gevurah \      |      /  Chesed
              (Strength)\_____|_____/__ (Mercy)
                  |      \    |    /    (Love)
                  | \     \   |   /     / |
                  |  \     \  |  /     /  |
                  |   \   Tipheret    /   |
                  |   /   (Beauty)    \   |
                  |  /        |        \  |
                  | /         |         \ |
                  |/          |          \|
                 Hod          |        Netzach
               (Glory) _______________(Victory)
              (Splendour)     |       (Firmness)
                 \ \          |           / /
                  \ \         |          / /
                  \  \        |         / /
                   \  \       |        /  /
                   \   \    Yesod     /  /
                    \    (Foundation)   /
                     \                 /
                      \       |       /
                       \      |      /
                        \     |     /
                           Malkuth
                          (Kingdom)

                           Figure 7

From an historical point of view the doctrine of emanations and the Tree of Life are only one small part of a huge body of Kabbalistic speculation about the nature of divinity and our part in creation, but it is the part which has survived. The Tree continues to be used in the Twentieth Century because it has proved to be a useful and productive symbol for practices of a magical, mystical and religious nature. Modern Kabbalah in the Western Mystery Tradition is largely concerned with the understanding and practical application of the Tree of Life, and the following set of notes will list some of the characteristics of each sephira in more detail so that you will have a “snapshot” of what each sephira represents before going on to examine the sephiroth and the “deep structure” of the Tree in more detail.

Notes on Kabbalah
The author grants the right to copy and distribute these Notes provided they remain unmodified and original authorship and copyright is retained. The author retains both the right and intention to modify and extend these Notes.

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