That art thou

“That art thou” is the pinnacle of teaching in the Chandogya Upanishad, a central text of Hinduism.

“In the beginning, there was Existence alone; that is one only, without a second.

He thought ‘Let me be many and let me grow forth.’ Out of Himself, He thus projected the universe.

He entered into every being and every thing. All that is has its self in Him alone.

He is the Self. And that, Svetaketu, That art Thou.”

They called this “existence itself” Brahman, and the individual soul they called Atman. Hence the central spiritual revelation: Atman is Brahman.

The different religions conceive of “existence itself” by different names, but they all have some form of “that art thou” moment.

I think it ultimately comes down to the individual. For some, being “children of God” is the most powerful and moving expression of our relationship with the divine.

For others “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” makes the most sense.

In fact in Christianity there are countless ways of expressing the good news that we are not separate from God.

In Buddhism we see a new approach to convey non-separation by doing away with the hallowed Hindu notion of atman. Anatman means “no atman”. There is no self and no Brahman. All is “empty” of self, sunyata.

Yet this emptiness is itself enlightenment, another realisation that we are not separate from all that is.

And as Buddhism evolved people found new ways of expressing non-separation, focusing on Buddha-nature within ourselves and all sentient beings, focusing on Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in devotion, prayer, and oneness, with numerous esoteric and mystical practices and sects each having their own emphasis and nuance.

Whatever the teaching, all seek to bring us to a point of realising we are not and have never been separate from the power that created all existence. And further that we should therefore fear nothing, want for nothing, but instead dwell in the love, joy, and contentment of being one with the divine.

Form and Formlessness

I bought a book about comparative mysticism recently.

Most of it is familiar territory. I’ve read a lot on comparative mysticism, and I’ve made my own comparisons of various mystics. But what attracted me to this book was the author’s analysis of thought and sensation in the context of “form and formlessness”. You can read about it here, but it is lengthy and intense: http://www.centerforsacredsciences.org/index.php/Articles/from-form-to-formlessness.html

What’s so special about this analysis?

Well, mysticism is a fairly esoteric field, and while there are plenty of people espousing various theories and interpretations, it is extremely rare to find a genuine entryway into these esoteric concepts. Many mystics have offered descriptions and idiosyncratic instructions based on their own experiences, but often their language is metaphorical or dependent on their own temperament or religious context.

Form 

The essence of the article is that our experience of an object consists of various sensory impressions of that object plus a thought about the object’s existence.

The author uses a gong as his example: you can see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, and smell it. But each of these impressions is transient, and furthermore they are all quite distinct from one another.

If you close your eyes and refrain from other interaction with the gong, how do you know it is there?

You don’t. Nonetheless, we all tend to hold an impression or thought or idea of the gong in our mind like a place-holder for the ‘real’ object. We think “there’s a gong there”, even though we no longer have any experience of the gong.

In fact, this idea of the gong also informs our experience of it: the distinct sensory impressions are all bundled together with this “gong” idea.

Yet the gong idea and all the sensory impressions are ultimately just thoughts – just mental impressions, and we know nothing about the reality beyond them.

All thoughts and sensory impressions are transient, impermanent forms that arise and fall within the mind.

Not that we really know what “mind” is either, that’s just another thought form, a pragmatic distinction between different aspects of my experience.

Formlessness

These forms arise out of something that has no form, and when they disappear only formlessness remains.

I must have read about “the space between thoughts” dozens of times, but I never understood its true significance. For one thing, it’s tempting to conceive of this “space” as something special, something that will of itself reveal all the answers we are seeking. But it doesn’t seem to work like that.

The article does a great job of clarifying that this formlessness is indeed entirely without form – we cannot grasp it, cannot conceive of it. It is darkness to the intellect.

It will not appear as something special, but when we understand how special it is, and that it is everywhere – in all the gaps, in all the spaces, within form and without form – then we can start to lay down the delusions, cravings, and selfishness that blight our daily experience.

No-Self

After all, what is true of the gong is equally true of you. You have your thoughts, your sensory impressions, and you try your utmost day-in day-out to fit them to a more abstract idea of “I exist”.

Descartes famously reasoned that he could not doubt his own existence because the very act of doubting proved he must exist. But more contemporary philosophers have since argued that this is not the case. Instead of “I think therefore I am”, all Descartes can really say is “thinking is happening”.

Like the idea of the gong, we carry around an idea of ourselves that is nothing more than a thought – albeit a very rich, complex, and convoluted one. That is not to say we don’t exist – just that this thought of oneself is not actually a self anymore than the thought of the gong is actually a gong.

Reversion in Buddhism?

My PhD reading on Wang Bi the third century AD Neo-Daoist philosopher revealed the scholarly view that in his elevation of wu or “emptiness/non-being” as metaphysically and spiritually preeminent, Wang Bi prepared the way for the eventual popularity of Mahayana Buddhism in China.

In other words, Wang Bi’s metaphysical interpretation of wu gave Chinese thinkers an entry-point for the Buddhist concept of Sunyata or “emptiness”.

Reversion

So I am surprised to find in a description of Sunyata allusions to something that in a Daoist context is called ‘reversion’:

Calmness and extinction are the opposite of rising and falling. They are another way to express that there is no rising and falling. Rising and falling are the common characteristics of worldly existence. All phenomena are always in the cycle of rising and falling. However, most people concentrate on living (rising). They think that the universe and life are the reality of a continuous existence.

Buddhism on the other hand, promotes the value of a continuous cessation (falling). This cessation does not imply that it ceases to exist altogether. Instead, it is just a state in the continuous process of phenomena. In this material world, or what we may call this “state of existence”, everything eventually ceases to exist. Cessation is definitely the home of all existences. Since cessation is the calm state of existence and the eventual refuge of all phenomena, it is also the foundation for all activities and functions.

The Amitabha Buddha who was, and is, revered and praised by Buddhists around the world, radiates indefinite light and life from this “state of cessation”. This state is a continuous process of calmness. It will be the eventual refuge for us all. If we think carefully about the definitions of calmness and extinction, then we can deduce that they are the true natural end-points of rising and falling. The true nature of the cycle of rising and falling is calmness and extinction. Because of this nature, all chaos and conflicts in the state of rising and falling will eventually cease. This is attainable by the realisation of prajna.

I have often seen references to impermanence in the context of Sunyata, and of course if Sunyata underlies the rising and falling of existences, then Sunyata is metaphysically prior. But I have never before seen rising and falling depicted as a cycle with human values attributed to either end of the cycle. Yet as we see above, the text describes our (incorrect) tendency to focus on the ‘rising’ part of the cycle when in fact ‘falling’ is identified as the ‘home’ and ‘foundation’ of existences, activities, and functions, such that Amitabha is depicted as radiating light and life from the “state of cessation”.

This sounds strikingly similar to the Daoist principle of reversion that Edward Slingerland has elucidated so well in his discussion of wu-wei in the Laozi (Daodejing), and which I quoted previously in my Easter Vigil Notes:

Throughout the text we are presented with dyads of metaphorically “lower” and “higher” terms: soft/hard; weak/strong; empty/full. As Benjamin Schwartz notes, the “lower” (by conventional standards) term inevitably enjoys a higher true status in Laozi’s scheme than the ostensibly “higher” term; water, as he puts it, is “in a profounder sense stronger than stone” (Schwartz 1986: 203). Such is the Way the world works: that which is conventionally “high”(e.g., strong) inevitably reverts to the low (weakness), and thus true strength thus lies in holding to “weakness.” One is able to endure by holding fast to the “roots” (to “Nothing” and the negative qualities associated with it) and not getting dragged “up” into the realm of doing and regarding.

[…]

The Way itself is thus described in terms of “lower” qualities that actually encompass their opposites (“empty yet full”), and the best advice is to emulate the Way and hold fast to the conventionally lower element of the dyad. Once one is able to accomplish this, both sides of the dyad will be obtained.

It would be intriguing and encouraging indeed if the Buddhist interpretation quoted earlier is representative of Mahayana more generally. I’ve not come across it before, though most of what I have read has been far more preoccupied with maintaining the peculiar integrity of the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, and advancing ’emptiness’ against the more compelling evidence of our senses.

Indeed, absent the ‘necessary/contingent’ distinction presented in Christian-Hellenic philosophy, I’m not sure I could ever have grasped ’emptiness’ appropriately either. Buddhism has the handicap of having originated in opposition to a religious metaphysics that had – as far as I understand it – overplayed the idea of a divine, imperishable substratum of being. So we end up with quite challenging attempts to explain ’emptiness’ as things kinda sorta both existing and not existing, which I find very unsatisfying.

Much better, in my admittedly eccentric opinion, to explain Buddhism as the realisation of the contingency of all creation, without the corresponding necessity of a creator. And yet I think the creator is there, in the very modest positive depictions of Sunyata. Buddhism is like an apophatic theology written by someone deeply traumatised by an excessive cataphatic upbringing.  Imagine someone raised in the context of an overly superficial evangelical protestantism where God is essentially depicted as an immortal superhero, subsequently having an experience of “divine darkness” a la Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in, of course, an entirely pre-Christian and non-Judaic context:

The divine darkness is the inaccessible light in which God is said to dwell. And since He is invisible by reason of the abundant outpouring of supernatural light, it follows that whosoever is counted worthy to know and see God, by the very fact that he neither sees nor knows Him, attains to that which is above sight and knowledge, and at the same time perceives that God is beyond all things both sensible and intelligible, saying with the Prophet, “Thy knowledge is become wonderful to me; it is high, and I cannot reach to it.” In like manner, St Paul, we are told, knew God, when he knew Him to be above all knowledge and understanding; wherefore he says that His ways are unsearchable and His judgments inscrutable, His gifts unspeakable, and His peace passing all understanding; as one who had found Him who is above all things, and whom he had perceived to be above knowledge, and separate from all things, being the Creator of all.