The Great Triad

~René Guénon 

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Heaven and Earth


'HEAVEN covers, Earth supports.' So runs the traditional formula that defines with the greatest of precision the roles of these two complementary principles and symbolically demarcates their positions, respectively above and below, in relation to the 'ten thousand beings' -that is, the totality of universal manifestation. Here we find postulated on one hand the 'actionless' quality of the activity of Heaven, or Purusha; and on the other hand the passivity of Earth, or Prakriti, which strictly speaking is a 'ground' or 'support' for manifestation, and consequently also a plane of resistance and halting for the celestial forces and influences acting downwards from above. Furthermore, this is applicable at any level of existence, for essence and substance can always be envisaged as principles that in a relative sense-that is, in relation to each particular state of manifestation-correspond to universal Essence and universal Substance in their relation to the totality of manifested existence.

Within the Universal, and viewed from the side of their common principle, Heaven is 'active perfection' (Ch 'ien) and Earth is 'passive perfection' (K'un). Neither of these is Perfection in the absolute sense: a distinction already exists, and distinction inevitably implies a limitation. Viewed from the side of manifestation, they are merely Essence and Substance, which necessarily possess a lesser degree of universality because they only appear as such precisely in relation to manifestation. But whatever the viewpoint, and regardless of the level from which they are observed in their correlation with each other, Heaven is always an active principle and Earth always a passive principle. Alternatively, to use one of the symbolic contrasts most frequently employed in this context, they are a masculine principle and a feminine principle; and here we have the most classic of all examples of complementarity.

Generally speaking it is from this basic polarity that all the other characteristics of Heaven and Earth derive, these being in one way or another secondary to it. However, it is advisable to be on the alert here for certain exchanges of attributes which could give rise to misunderstandings, and which in fact can occur fairly frequently in traditional symbolism wherever relationships between complementary principles are involved. This is a point we will later have to come back to when we deal with the numerical symbols attributed to Heaven and to Earth.

It is common knowledge that in the case of a complementary relationship between two terms where one is viewed as active and the other as passive, the active term will generally be represented symbolically by a vertical line and the passive term by a horizontal line At times Heaven and Earth are also depicted symbolically in this way; but in this particular case the two lines do not cross each other to form a cross as they usually would, because it is obviously appropriate that the whole of the symbol of Heaven should be placed above the symbol of Earth. This gives us a perpendicular with the horizontal at its foot, and these two lines can be viewed as the altitude and base of a triangle, the sides of which descend from the 'pinnacle of Heaven' to determine the real extent of the surface of the Earth-that is, to mark off the 'ground' that serves as the support for manifestation.

Be this as it may, the kind of geometric representation most frequently encountered in the Far-Eastern tradition is one that associates circular shapes with Heaven and square shapes with Earth, for reasons we have already explained elsewhere. Suffice it here to say that if we consider the cycle of manifestation-and by this we refer to any cycle that can be conceived of, ranging from the most extensive in size to the smallest-the descending movement in the cycle proceeds from the upper pole, Heaven, to the lower pole, Earth; if only a specific cycle is being considered, it will naturally be a question of whatever else happens to represent these poles from a relative point of view.

This descending movement can be regarded as taking its point of departure from the least 'specific' of all shapes-the sphere-in order to arrive finally at the shape which is by contrast the most 'fixed' of all-the cube. It can be added that the first of these two shapes has an eminently 'dynamic' property, while the second is eminently 'static'-which corresponds once again to the polarity of active and passive. Also, there is a sense in which this representation can be linked to the preceding one by viewing the horizontal line in the first figure as the trace of a plane surface, the 'measured' area of which will be a square, and by viewing the vertical line as the radius of a hemispherical surface that meets the terrestrial plane along the line of the horizon. And in fact, according to sensible appearances Heaven and Earth meet at their periphery or their outermost borders-namely on the horizon. It should be noted, however, that the reality of which these appearances are symbols must be viewed the other way around, for in terms of that reality they are united not at the periphery but at the centre; and if we consider Heaven and Earth in the state of relative separation required for the Cosmos to be able to come into being between them, they communicate with each other along the axis which passes through that centre. This axis simultaneously unites and separates them, or in other terms it measures the distance between Heaven and Earth-that is, the extension of the Cosmos in the vertical direction which indicates the hierarchy of the states of manifest existence. Yet at the same time it also links Heaven and Earth across this multiplicity of states, and viewed from this perspective these states appear as so many rungs by which a being on the way of return to the Principle may raise himself from Earth to Heaven.

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