Saturday, September 29, 2012

Nondualistic Mysticism 101

     Several years ago in Burma I was involved in some correspondence with a rationalistically-oriented British monk who insisted that Dharma had to make perfect sense, and that nondualistic mysticism, transcending sense as it does, was consequently just so much soft-headed gibberish. The following is adapted from one of my attempts to explain mysticism in a way that a hard-headed intellectual may be able to appreciate. My experience is that intellectual persons who have never had a genuine mystical experience never seem to "get it," and tend to dismiss mysticism as fanciful emotionality or worse. Even great thinkers like Bertrand Russell and Stephen Hawking utterly failed to understand or appreciate it. (Hawking once stated that mysticism is a "cop-out" which clouds the issues, not seeing that the opposite was closer to the case: the issues cloud mysticism.) However, my latest blog posts have been leaning more towards heart than head, methinks, so I offer this as a way to restore, maybe, some balance.
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     To begin with, it may be of some use to delineate the basic fundamentals of nondualistic mysticism, at least as well as I understand them. First, there is the (dualistic but practically unavoidable) Buddhist notion of two truths, conventional and ultimate. This should present no problem, as even science and the Abhidhamma philosophy recognize a distinction between appearance and reality, or, as Kant put it, between the phenomenon and the thing in itself. For example, from the scientific point of view the sweet, juicy red apple on the table is, "in reality," nothing more than tasteless and colorless particles, waves, fields, and/or warped space. The important thing to remember is that, in Samsara at least, conventional "truth" and ultimate Truth occur simultaneously. As far as I can tell, there can be no such thing as a totally baseless pure illusion; for example, scientifically speaking, a talking owl hallucinated from scratch by an alcoholic with the DT's1, at the level of its underlying reality, could be described as abnormal neuronal activity in an ethanol-damaged brain. Both levels of reality would necessarily be present simultaneously. Similarly, all samsaric illusion is based upon, even completely pervaded by, ultimate reality. Not the slightest iota of it is without any grounding at all in what is real. Thus far even scientists and Abhidhamma scholars are in agreement with this. It would be easy to say that whether one is unenlightened or enlightened depends upon which level of truth, conventional or ultimate, one sees as actual Truth, although this would be somewhat of an overcomplexification of the matter. But I am getting ahead of myself.
     Next---and this is where pluralistic realists and nondualistic mystics part company---is the idea that ultimate truth, or Reality, is indeterminate and beyond dualistic distinctions (such distinctions being mere artifacts of perception), and consequently it is also utterly ineffable and inconceivable. So we could say that there is only one ultimately real state of being, not 82 as the Abhidhammic Buddhaghosists would have us believe; but even to call it One is an invalid attempt to conceptualize it. As the Chinese Buddhist patriarch Seng-Tsan says, all we can say is "not two." Among the Hindus this undifferentiated Ultimate Reality is called Brahman, among the Taoists, Tao, among some Western mystics, God, and among some Buddhists, Nirvana. The Buddhists in particular have come up with a whole slew of synonyms for it, which need not be listed here (although I will say one of my favorites is nippapañca, or nondiversification---i.e., nonduality!). So, Reality equals Nirvana. And of course, conversely, unreality is Samsara; yet, as has been pointed out, all illusion is necessarily based upon and even pervaded by reality. And so, how far away can Reality be? It is right here, right now. It is everywhere, always, even in the midst of our greatest delusions. We are soaking in it. A person seeking Nirvana is like a fish in the middle of the ocean seeking water; not only is it totally surrounded by it, but its entire body is saturated with it. This also helps to explain the Mahayana Buddhist tenet that Nirvana and Samsara are apparently different yet ultimately exactly the same. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, "You have it already. You just can't feel it because your mind is making too much noise."
     Just as it is a mistake to assume that we progress from self to no self, since no self is, at least from the Buddhist point of view, the essential state of reality from the very beginning, even so, it is a mistake to assume that we progress from conventional truth to Ultimate Truth, or from Samsara to Nirvana, since Ultimate Truth and Nirvana are also the essential state of reality from the very beginning. There is simply a shift in awareness, a broadening of focus.
     It appears that one logical consequence of a truly nondualistic Reality, which, however, appears to receive very little emphasis in the mystical literature, is that the "coherence theory of truth" would govern Samsara. In epistemology books it is written that there are two main theories concerning the meaning of "truth": the correspondence theory and the coherence theory. The correspondence theory, which is assumed by most scientists and by all Abhidhamma scholars, dogs, and chickens---in short, by all realists---claims that a judgement is true if and only if it corresponds to some objective matter of fact. For example, the judgement "The apple is on the table" is true if and only if the apple really is on the table. On the other hand, the coherence theory3 states that a judgement is "true" if and only if it is consistent with all other judgements which also happen to be considered true. Thus, the truth or falsehood of the judgement "The apple is on the table" depends entirely upon its agreement or disagreement with other perceptions. In a world in which the only real matter of fact is an unthinkable indeterminate Void or Infinity, any perceptual belief system would necessarily be arbitrary and free-floating, with no basis at all in "pure objectivity." All perceptual belief systems, which is to say all Samsaras, derive their apparent objective reality and validity merely from internal self-consistency. I suspect that this mutual conditioning of perceptual "facts," this complete relativity of conventional "truth," was originally the main point of the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Co-Arising. In this being, that is; from the arising of this, that arises. The whole thing can be viewed as a conditional if/then statement: If this is considered to be true or real, then that also must be considered to be true or real. This is how duality works. It is written that seeing the truth of paicca-samuppāda is the essence of enlightenment; that he who sees Dependent Co-Arising (that "Co-" or "sam-" being too often ignored) sees the Dharma; but how many people have become enlightened by studying the stock formula beginning "Dependent on ignorance there are karma formations, dependent of karma formations, consciousness…"? Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of zero.
     Perceptual views have no intrinsic objectivity or absolute truth value; they are ultimately neither true nor false. One belief system may be more comprehensive and logically or empirically more self-consistent than another, but none can begin to comprehend ultimate truth. As Kant said in his Critique of Pure Reason, "Supposing that we should carry our empirical intuition even to the very highest degree of clearness we should not thereby advance one step nearer to the constitution of objects as things in themselves,"---i.e., to Ultimate Reality. Consequently, the important thing about a perceptual view is not its truth, but its usefulness. So, if Abhidhamma studies, or self-hypnosis, or visualizing copulating Tibetan buddhas, or worshipping a statue of a deified monkey somehow helps one to become enlightened, then one may as well go for it. The trick is to follow a method which enables one to benefit from that method, outgrow it, and then set it aside; hence the famous Simile of the Raft in Buddhist philosophy. Systems are at best tools which allow us to transcend all systems. For one wanting enlightenment a view is useful or skillful or "Right" to the extent that it somehow helps one to let go of all views. 

The victorious ones have said
That emptiness is the relinquishing of all views.
For whomever emptiness is a view,
That one has accomplished nothing.   (---Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XIII.84)

But, letting go of all views is not necessarily the same as eradicating all views (just as mindfully detaching from one's defilements is not necessarily the same as eradicating one's defilements). I think this is a very recondite but very important point to consider. 

A monk whose mind is liberated thus, Aggivessana, agrees with no one and disagrees with no one; whatever language is spoken in the world, he makes use of that without adhering to it. (---Dīghanakha Sutta (M74))

     Bearing all this in mind, and with all due respects to venerable teachers to be found throughout the world, anyone who insists, "Only this is true! Anything else is wrong!" is clinging to delusion and Samsara.
     I suspect I may be waxing unintelligible by now. It may be that paradox, enigma, ambiguity, and general disorientation are simply not the reader's bag of tea. In which case the good old-fashioned Proto-Theravadin approach may be more appropriate; namely, to emphasize practical matters and to keep philosophical theory to a bare minimum. So, the following is instruction for "contemplation," as the Christian mystics call it, adapted from the teachings of the great saint, mystical doctor, and meditation master St. John of the Cross. Since pure consciousness (or in St. John's language, God) cannot be discerned by the senses, if one wishes direct knowledge of this consciousness one must disregard the information given by the senses. As it cannot be imagined, imagination too should be dismissed. Thoughts, feelings, and any other perceptions also are incapable of containing the infinity of pure consciousness, so whatever of these that arise during contemplation should be let go of and dismissed. By steadfastly continuing with this method of emptying the mind of all phenomena that are not pure consciousness, before long the mind will be empty of all but the first, incomplete motions of their arising, upon which arising they are immediately seen and dismissed. Even the idea of dismissing, of emptiness, or of "pure consciousness" should not be entertained in the mind. When this state has been achieved one will find that the mind is not empty, as one might expect, but is expanded and clear, and even more conscious than when one is in a normal, "waking" state. St. John calls this "Dark Faith," and also "true poverty of spirit." Other systems call it by other names. He also says that if there were two people, one who spent his or her life feeding the hungry, tending the sick, housing the homeless, and giving all outward support to the afflicted and helpless, and the other spending his or her life practicing this kind of direct experience of God through contemplation, the second would be doing more to benefit the earth, and more to serve God. I get a feeling that he may be right, although of course there is absolutely nothing at all wrong with outward service to others. Perhaps a combination of both, if possible, would be most beneficial.
     This kind of contemplation generally requires a life of renunciation, quietude, and much practice, or else the endowment of great talent, and may be beyond the average reader of Buddhist (or Catholic) blogs. Here is a shorter method which leads to essentially the same result, although for a shorter length of time: Make yourself comfortable and clear your mind of all thoughts, and then watch your mind carefully to see what thought will come up next. You may find that the more carefully you try to "catch" the first thought as it arises, the longer it will take for that thought to finally arise. To experience this alert, watchful silence is essentially a mild mystical state---at least a mild one.
     Or, here is an even shorter method: be as mindful and present as you can while sneezing. I have read that the closest the average person comes to enlightenment is the experience of orgasm; but if I recall correctly there is much too much emotional turmoil going on for the comparison to be a good one. I have often considered that the closest the average person comes to enlightenment or a genuine mystical state is when she or he is in the middle of a sneeze---one is wide awake, and not thinking anything. It is a split second of eternity. But the greatest trick of all is to remain in that state of awareness even after the thinking starts again. Then one has truly become a master.

The view from inside "Tapogūha," a meditation cave in NW Burma (Myanmar)

     1. My father actually had a roommate like this long ago. He would lie on his couch staring up at an empty space on a bookshelf, and would engage in long conversations with an owl supposedly perched there. One day my father found a stuffed owl at a second-hand shop, so he bought it and stealthily placed it on the shelf where the fellow was wont to see the imaginary one. A practical joker, was my father. He also mentioned having known a certain heavy drinker who would see a kind of creature called a "jumbly," of which there were two varieties, pink and green. The fellow used to say that the pink jumblies weren't so bad---but the green ones! He would shudder with horror at the mere thought of them. But I digress.
     2. Incidentally, it seems to me that the Abhidhamma scholars are hard put to fit Nibbāna into their pluralistic system in any plausible way. For example, Nibbāna is said to be eternal and not to arise or pass away, yet it (or at least the awareness of it, which would seem to be the same thing) allegedly arises at the moment of enlightenment and then passes away again, at which point the newly awakened being lapses into a kind of temporary meditative coma. Also, Nibbāna is said to be unconditioned and not to be a cause or an effect, yet it is believed to arise as the result of meditative insight. Furthermore, the unconditioned Buddhaghosist Nibbāna is a very limited entity, as there is so much that it is not---for instance, it is not any of the other 81 ultimate realities, such as earth element, femininity, or wrong view. But wouldn't any kind of limitation itself be a condition? How can Nibbāna be unconditioned if it is here in the mind of this sage but not there in that chicken? Anyhow, if anyone can demonstrate that Nibbāna is no more ultimately real than, say, earth element, nose sensitivity, or right livelihood, then I will eat whatever hat is set before me (although I reserve the right to choose the accompanying beverage).
     3. The most well-known advocate of which, or so I have read, being the Hegelian philosopher F.H. Bradley.
     4. Translation by Jay L. Garfield in The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Oxford 1995).


  1. Why is contemplation more beneficial than charity?

    1. I don't remember what San Juan de la Cruz's answer to that question would be. His statement on the subject is in his little book "The Living Flame of Love" (a commentary to a mystical poem of the same name) in case you want to know intensely enough to look it up. From a less Christian point of view I suspect he is right maybe because mystical "contemplation" raises the overall level of consciousness on the planet, as mental states are contagious. Charity, which is good of course, mainly treats the symptoms of suffering more than the underlying causes which are predominantly psychological/spiritual, a matter of levels of consciousness.

      A similar case found in Buddhist literature is the frequently repeated statement in the Mahayanist Diamond-Cutter Sutra that a person may make a superhuman offering of charity, including the offering up of his own life, but if he memorizes just one stanza from the Sutra, understands it, and explains it to others he would be generating incalculably greater merit. In Theravada there is also the story of how Mara tried to talk the Bodhisatta out of renouncing the world for the sake of enlightenment by pointing out all the good, meritorious deeds he could do as a worldly layperson. The Bodhisatta replied that enlightenment is infinitely better than the doing of good works. He had no more need of merit.

      Even so, I'm certainly not trying to badmouth the doing of good to others. It's just that higher consciousness without good works is ultimately more helpful than good works without higher consciousness. Again, both would seem to be best of all.