The Extended Tree: modern forms of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and their origins
An article by Cherry Gilchrist about a modern development of the
Tree of Life and its formulation by three Kabbalists:
Glyn Davies, Alan Bain, and Warren Kenton
(otherwise known as Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi).
The Tree of Life is a cosmic map used by Kabbalists to represent the flow of creation from first principles to physical manifestation. ‘Flow’ is a useful word because Kabbalah never is and never was entirely fixed as a system. Kabbalists, certainly in the last five hundred years, have experimented with different forms of the Tree, with variation in layout, the number of paths and how they are placed between the sefiroth. The version that we know best today is probably more fixed than it has been for centuries, but even so changes may sometimes be made, to try and represent different aspects of Kabbalistic teaching.
This has been the case with devising a glyph for the Tree of Life which can represent the four different levels, or ‘worlds’ of Creation. Each sefira on the Tree is said to contain all four worlds, and by the same token, there can be a Tree for each world. But if there is a Tree of Assiah, the material world, a Tree of Yetzirah, the imaginative principle, of Briah which is fiery and creative, and Aziluth which is the purest and most etheric form – then how might these be shown in an integrated form? Would it be possible to ‘extend’ the existing Tree somehow? Such questions played in the minds of Kabbalists, who are on the whole nosey people, and curious about how everything works. Could it be made to work better? Speculation is part of the game; the search for the Extended Tree was on.
This is where we can switch to a very particular account of how a modern form of the Extended Tree took shape, with its roots in a 1950s Kabbalah group, and formulated in different ways by three Kabbalists: Glyn Davies, Alan Bain, and Warren Kenton (otherwise known as Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi). The source was a circle of people who used to gather in Soho in the 1950s and 60s to study Kabbalah, who were known simply as ‘The Group’. I will return to them later. I will also just add here that I am writing this based on my own research first-hand observations, plus similar research by colleagues. But although I’m making this as historically accurate as possible, it will to some extent be influenced by the line that Glyn Davies founded, which is the path that I took, rather than that of Alan Bain or Warren Kenton. These three lines are indeed intertwined, and share certain values and a similar type of knowledge, but they do not share exactly the same outlook.
Glyn Davies’ group and the Extended Tree
In the early 1970s, Glyn Davies was casting around for a satisfactory way to draw up an extended Tree of Life, a Jacob’s ladder that could represent the interaction of the four worlds. At that time, my former husband Chris Gilchrist and I were members of Glyn’s Kabbalah group, which met on Monday evenings in the front room of his flat in Maida Vale. Chris and I had been introduced to Kabbalah in 1970 at meetings of the Society of the Common Life, in our final year as students at Cambridge University. We moved to London that summer and were eager to take our study of the Tree further. Glyn was originally from Wales, and had served in the RAF; during his service he learned about the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and baffled the authorities by putting up a drawing of it above his bunk bed! He successfully argued the case for keeping it there on religious grounds, as that was the only kind of poster allowed. His teacher was said to come from a Kabbalistic line that came over to the United Kingdom from the Low Countries just after World War I. This line was also said to have a connection with the medieval movement of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, hence the use of the term ‘Common Life’ in groups and public talks.
In 1972, in our informal sessions in Glyn’s kitchen, following the close of the formal Monday night group, we discussed the Four Worlds and how they might fit together in a diagrammatic form. There seemed to be no satisfactory model around for this. Chris Gilchrist then took a look at Frater Achad’s book, The Anatomy of the Body of God, which showed various colourful arrangements of multiple sets of The Tree of Life. Chris showed the book to Glyn, and said that in his view Achad’s diagrams didn’t work, but something along similar lines could. This was the spark needed; shortly afterwards, Glyn came up with the Extended Tree as we now know it. In this Tree, the Kether of the lower Tree becomes the Tiferet of the next higher one, and there are nine Sefirot down the right and left pillars, and ten (plus the ‘invisible’ sefira of Daat) down the centre.
The Extended Tree proved to be a very useful model for our ‘Common Life’ Kabbalah groups of the 1970s and early 80s. There was plenty of scope for working out what this new set of interconnections might mean, including equating it with the mystical and philosophical study of the ‘Octave’[i].
Warren Kenton’s Development of the Extended Tree
However, back in 1972, at the time of the discovery, Glyn Davies showed the Extended Tree to Warren Kenton. Glyn and Warren were old companions on the esoteric path, and Warren had recently started his own Kabbalah group, which was to develop into a full teaching school over the decades. In fact, it was Glyn Davies who had introduced him to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life and its attributions; Glyn is described as his Instructor in Warren’s autobiography. (All Warren Kenton’s books on Kabbalah are published under his Jewish name of Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi). Warren decided to take on the Extended Tree, and published it in his 1974 book Adam and the Kabbalistic Tree, where he named it ‘Jacob’s Ladder’. The symbol of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, stretching between heaven and earth, was an apt one for the kind of spiritual ladder that the Extended Tree represented and, as we shall see, Warren was not the only person to use it. Very probably too, the notion of a ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ kind of Tree might have been debated in the early Soho groups. As far as the Extended Tree diagram went, Glyn himself was not so sure that it should be published. This was not because of any individual claim he might have made to it, but more because he sensed that he had perhaps re-discovered an old, hidden tradition of Kabbalah. At around the same time that Warren’s book came out, Jill Purce published a diagram of the Extended Tree in her book The Mystic Spiral, also printed in 1974. This again originated from her contact with Glyn, and was never properly authorised for inclusion. However, by then the Extended Tree was out in the world, and Warren Kenton has made use of it as an excellent teaching tool and source of wisdom ever since. Warren, aka Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, makes acknowledgement of this in his autobiography:
‘Jacob’s ladder [the extended tree] was rediscovered by my Instructor and another member of our circle. The latter brought him the reproduction of a modern painting of kabbalistic trees, set inside one another. The idea that within each sefirah there is a little Tree and within that another and so on until there were ten, is well known, but not in terms of a Ladder. The painting had several Trees telescoped inside one another, but in no obvious order. My colleagues then saw that if this image could be pulled out, like a telescope, it might make more sense. They redrew the model in terms of the four worlds and suddenly Jacob’s Ladder was there with the Great Tree on the central column. When the Kabbalah group was shown this scheme, we were stunned. It explained many of the obscure texts in kabbalistic literature where a ‘Ladder of Ascent’ is mentioned.
‘I took this ‘Extended Tree’ and used it as the basis for the Adam book…My job was to put the scheme together in a coherent way.’[ii]
According to the Kabbalah Society, Warren Kenton has since associated his teaching with the ‘Toledo line’ of Kabbalah, which flourished in the 14th and 15th centuries in Spain, and considers that he is an inheritor of that tradition. [iii] He has also since put in a great deal of work to develop the newly-discovered, or rediscovered Extended Tree (depending upon your perspective) into a practical form for the current era. Whether or not this Tree has an affinity with the Toledo tradition, I am not qualified to say.
So this accounts for two streams of work on the Extended Tree in the 20th and 21st centuries. The differences between the two usages of the system are probably slight, and it was formulated at a time when Glyn and Warren met regularly, exchanged many ideas, and helped each other with the correspondences that were attributed to the Tree. I recall the time when various scientific principles were chosen, with the two men hammering out the options in discussion. But what of the third Kabbalist in this equation, the Rev. Alan Bain, as he was known?
Alan Bain and the Extended Tree
For that, we must rewind to 1956, a time when Bohemian Soho was at its zenith. Coffee bars ruled the scene, and aspiring artists, musicians and writers, along with homeless runaways, mingled there on a daily basis. Many were just setting out on their journey, and they were true seekers, trying to pick their way through bomb-damaged London both literally and figuratively, as they endeavoured to make sense of the new post-war world. Here Alan Bain started meet-ups for those who were interested in spiritual matters, and the Kabbalah in particular. Informal discussions in cafes were the entry point to private groups which individuals who were serious about discovering a path to knowledge could join on a regular basis.
Alan Bain came into ‘the Work’ after a career at sea that ended in shipwreck, and a formative experience[iv] that established a connection with the spiritual planes. He studied in the British Museum Reading Room, taught Kabbalah, and later became ordained in the Independent Catholic Church. Glyn Davies too began attending Alan Bain’s new group, but was already knowledgeable; he took a place on the sidelines. Perhaps he introduced Alan to Kabbalah – but it is more likely that we shall never know the exact details of who learned what, when and where. The main point is that this was the start of a long, intermittent collaboration between two Kabbalists with, ultimately, rather different forms of teaching. And the main result in relation to the current context is that Alan Bain eventually devised his own form of the Extended Tree, which he too, like Warren Kenton, called Jacob’s Ladder.
It is in its diagrammatic shape almost identical with the versions used by Glyn Davies and Warren Kenton. However, Alan Bain chose to include the ‘three veils of Negative Existence’ as they are known (Ain, Ain Soph, and Ain Soph Aur), as spheres at the top of the Tree. This gives a total of 32 spheres in the extended tree, which Alan equated to the 32 paths of wisdom mentioned in the Sepher Yetzirah.[v] The whole of this teaching is written-up in Alan’s book The Keys to the Kabbalah, which may date from as early as 1970, although the introduction to the first printed edition states that it was completed in 1977. Does this show a relationship to the Extended Tree which Glyn first drew out in 1972? I believe that it does. For one thing, the two diagrams are very similar in form; it would be remarkable if two men who knew each other and worked together managed to draw up almost exactly the same version of the Extended Tree. Added to this, the timing fits, since Alan Bain was living back in London from approximately 1970 to 1972 after moving down to the West Country in the 1960s. Although by this time the two no longer worked in groups together, Alan visited Glyn to share his current thoughts and likewise Glyn was able to show him what he was working on. There was still a degree of collaboration present, and the two stayed in touch for many years afterwards. (Both are now deceased.)
Since publishing the original version of this article, however, information has come to light which suggests that Alan Bain was using his Jacob’s ladder diagram as early as 1967/68. This might indicate that the concept of the extended tree did originate earlier with Alan Bain, or, more likely, with the original Kabbalah group in the 1950s and 60s.
The argument is, then, that these three very different teachers of Kabbalah – Glyn Davies, Warren Kenton and Alan Bain – all derived their versions of the Extended Tree from the same initial impulse, instigated by the early Kabbalistic group in London’s Soho. At present, there is uncertainty as to whether Glyn Davies or Alan Bain was the first to produce a workable version, and whether these came about independently or through collaboration. There are several of us who can vouch for the emergence of the Extended Tree as used by Davies around 1972 and adopted shortly afterwards by Kenton. This was definitely a new formulation at the time, not copied from elsewhere. On the other hand, there is evidence that Alan Bain’s Jacob’s Ladder was probably around a few years earlier, in diagrammatic form at least. Perhaps these two Kabbalists had worked together in the early Soho Group on the idea of a ‘Ladder’, and independently, the seeds sown had come to fruition for both. At any rate, all three men here have acknowledged their connection to a far more ancient tradition of Kabbalah. And those who can connect with this particular ‘stream’ may find that ideas that emerge are not ‘personal’ in the normal sense. It may be possible to find an idea floating down that stream, which is ripe for re-visioning in our own time. Being the recipient of such an idea does not rule out real work though; the person or group usually needs to make long and persistent effort to formulate it, test it out, and make it accessible to others. Each of these three men has done that in their own individual way.
The mind of mankind encompasses the centuries, and true thinking and teaching lays down some kind of wisdom that those who come later may be able to access. Perhaps the arrival of the Extended Tree was indeed ‘a whisper from the School of Knowledge’, as the Zohar says.
It was (God’s) will…that mind should be placed in the midst as a prize that human souls may win…He filled a great basin with mind and sent it down to earth; and he appointed a herald, and bade him make a proclamation to the hearts of men: “Hearken, each human heart; dip yourself in this basin, if you can, recognizing for what purpose you have been made, and believing that you shall ascend to Him who sent the basin down.” Now those who gave heed to the proclamation, and dipped themselves in the bath of mind, these men got a share of gnosis; they received mind and so became complete men.[vi]
© Cherry Gilchrist 2017
Cherry Gilchrist is an author of books on mythology, alchemy and the Hermetic tradition, including Tarot Triumphs (Red Wheel Weiser 2016) and Divination. She wrote The Tree of Life Oracle with Gila Zur, and her forthcoming book Circle of Nine on feminine archetypes will be published in 2018. See http://www.cherrygilchrist.co.uk
[i] As often studied in Gurdjieffian and Ouspensky groups. More on the Octave and the Tree of Life is to be found at https://singinghead.wordpress.com/2017/03/01/the-octave-and-the-tree-of-life/
[ii] The Path of a Kabbalist – Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi, (Tree of Life Publishing, 2009) pps. 139-140
[v] Alan Bain’s system is outlined at https://esoterichistory.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/alan-bains-thirty-two-paths-of-wisdom/
[vi] Hermetica: 151, translated by Sir Walter Scott