Thursday 29 May 2014

The Advaita Illusion

Advaita Vedanta is often regarded as the ne plus ultra of religion and metaphysics, the spiritual philosophy to which all others tend and for which they are only preparatory. This is because it uncompromisingly boils everything down to the One, and the One alone. Consciousness is not regarded as a property of the Absolute but its very nature. It is all there is and everything else, the world, the soul, even God, is reduced to an ultimately unreal manifestation of that. To some this idea seems a logical progression from the initial sense of multiplicity, and its radical purity and simplicity no doubt increases its attraction. At one time I assumed it was correct, and that it was just another, albeit slightly extreme, philosophy that identified Man’s origin and end as in God, but that was before I examined it properly and realised that its denial of self did not just mean that self (or identification with it) had to be transcended by the spiritual person but that it did not even truly exist in the first place. I now believe that it is based on a one-sided misinterpretation of reality and a desire to force all experience into a pre-determined box. There is no doubt that its position has a good deal of metaphysical justification, but it leaves too much out to be accepted unreservedly, and, in the final analysis, it must be considered a reductive view of how things are.

Perhaps the first thing to appreciate when trying to understand advaita is that it came out of Sankara's attempt to save Hinduism from the increasing spread in India of Buddhism. So rather than a natural thing in itself, arising out of pure spontaneous insight, it is better thought of as developing in reaction to something. It might even be considered, in part at least, as a compromise; and, indeed, later thinkers did accuse advaitins of giving up too much in their efforts to rescue the religion of the Vedas and the Upanishads from the onslaught of Buddhism with its perceived atheism. Specifically what they gave up was the idea of God and the reality of individual souls. This may seem academic in terms of attaining to an absolute consciousness but actually a proper understanding of the true metaphysical nature of things is all-important for determining correct spiritual practice.

Advaita is usually perceived in the West as the essence of Hinduism and the point up to which the entire religion leads, but that is not in fact the case. There are competing points of view within Vedanta itself, in particular that of Ramanuja who, while affirming fundamental unity, also taught the reality of individual souls, thereby rejecting Sankara's interpretation (and it was an interpretation) of the Upanishads. And then there is Tantra which describes existence as Siva-Sakti, roughly translating as Consciousness-Light Energy (or, simply put, spirit-matter), and so confirms the reality of the two poles or facets of existence which are different but not separate, and which need consciously uniting or integrating in the disciple for enlightenment to take place.

Advaita, like Buddhism, reduces the individual to the ego or separate self, but there are no valid grounds for assuming that the self-reflective principle in a human being amounts to nothing more than a veil on pure unlimited consciousness, and is an illusion of ignorance. Just because the soul can transcend identification with itself and know its uncreated origin in God does not mean it does not exist. It is a failure of imagination on the part of non-dualists not to be able to see that the individual can co-exist with the universal. Indeed, that these two should co-exist is the whole point of creation. Of course, advaitins do not believe in creation as such, seeing the world as little more than an illusion caused by ignorance of the real nature of things, but then they have no explanation as to why there should be something rather than nothing in the first place.

It is important to differentiate between ontological identity, which is above the world of sense-perception, and the notion of a separate self. That is to say, between the individual and unique 'I' on the one hand, and the sense of 'me, my and mine' on the other. Neither advaita nor Buddhism do this, and part of the reason they fail to discriminate between the individual soul and the ego, its separated component, is that they have no understanding of the Fall as taught in Judaeo-Christian religions. (The closest they come to it is the Buddhist view that all life is suffering). So they see the self as fundamentally bad instead of understanding that it has gone bad, or been corrupted, but can be redeemed. Truly, a perfect example of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Or, perhaps more pertinently, rejecting the whole grain just because of the husk.

It might be countered to the above remarks that many non-dualistic teachers have obviously had some experience that proves the truth of their doctrine, and any intellectual arguments against it are irrelevant in the face of this higher knowledge. Granted, they may no doubt have experienced some kind of mystical at-one-ment. This is not actually that uncommon. In the great majority of cases it will be a contact with the soul which is the spiritual level of consciousness existing above the passing movement of time. However this is then interpreted according to the pre-existing mindset of the experiencer, and often in the context of advaita or Zen or some similar belief system which seems to offer ultimate truth. To an up-until-now materialistic mind any contact with the soul can seem so extraordinary that it might see it as obliterating the self, despite the fact that there has only been a temporary melting of the boundaries of the ego. But what matters with an experience is how you react to it, what you do with it, and to treat it as a reason to deny God and the individual self is to misinterpret it and could well arrest any further future spiritual development. In effect, the supposedly denied and non-existent ego is taking the experience to itself, adapting itself to the experience and possibly even subtly strengthening itself in the process which is why false interpretations of spiritual states must be corrected. The disciple may end up worse off than when he started, spiritually speaking. 

It is well known that Hindu mystics have visions of Krishna while Christian ones see Jesus, and that in many cases this is because their already existing beliefs colour or even determine their experience. Similarly a non-dualistic belief system will influence the subject's interpretation of his experience which assumes the form his mind imposes on it. That is why wise spiritual teachers do not recommend taking personal experience as the sole basis for comprehending reality. The imperfect nature of the mind receiving the experience is a factor in how it is understood. This is not a rejection of mystical experiences (in the examples above the vision of the deity may be an astral illusion but it may also be a crystallisation of a true spiritual energy in a form familiar to the devotee), but points to the truth that an experience and its interpretation are not the same thing.

On one level, advaita seems to teach a pure form of the standard mystical idea of union between man and God, but because it denies the reality of both the individual soul and God (as God), it can lead to a mistaken idea of what spirituality actually is, and this will affect proper practice.  Its absorption of everything into the One might make it seem the highest form of spirituality and the one that lies behind all others as their uniting principle, and that is how it has been presented in the past.  And yet it is essentially reductive since it takes no account of any relationship between God and the soul, has no awareness of why the world should have come about in the first place, no real understanding of the many different levels of being and no insight into the fact that the soul is not just the ego.

To misconceive the nature of spiritual reality means that your approach to it might be completely wrong. The doctrine of advaita has gained considerable intellectual respectability over the last hundred years, but it did not go unchallenged in the past in the land of its birth and should not go unchallenged now that it has become popular elsewhere.  It seeks to express the most profound of truths but leaves out something essential which is the reality of creation. I am not disputing that Man is ultimately woven of the same fabric as God and that we can know this in the sense of wholly realise it, but I reject the notion that individuality is an illusion to be seen through. If that is the case then love is also an illusion other than as a sort of rather bland universal benevolence. I don't mean this entirely seriously, but does the married non-dualist love his wife as a person or as a manifestation of Brahman, one amongst countless others? Tell her that on your next anniversary. Of course, if he is true to his doctrine he will not have a wife or, indeed, any kind of personal relationship at all.

I would also suggest that the non-dualist reduction of God to 'the last thought', as I believe Ramana Maharishi phrased it, is a categorical error. Why limit God as Creator in this way? The Creator of form is surely beyond form. Furthermore, there is a sense in which advaita might be accused of anthropomorphising even the formless Brahman in a way not entirely dissimilar to those who envisage God as a person. By describing the divine reality in terms of pure consciousness is it not saying that the fundamental human state is analogous to the divine state? Why should this be so? Why would the highest form of human knowingness (for want of a better word) be the highest form per se? Might not God in His essence be completely beyond anything we can begin to conceive of? I should have thought that He/It most certainly would be.

Now I have mentioned Ramana I must address the fact that his espousal of advaita might make it seem unassailable. He is, after all, one the major spiritual figures of the last century, and one about whom nothing but good has ever been said. However two things about Ramana should be borne in mind. First of all, his spiritual awakening was not attained within the context of advaita which he subsequently adopted as the one mystical system available to him that could be said to correspond to his experience. He used advaita as the best framework to give form to his insight. I mean no disrespect to someone whose level of spiritual attainment cannot be doubted to say that his experience of the world, both intellectual and actual, was not particularly extensive, and even the best of us must operate within the constraints of our environment, mental and physical. Ramana, as we all are, was a product of his world and had perforce to express himself within the limitations of that world. I know this might seem heresy to some but we would say that about Christian mystics of the order of St Francis of Assisi so why not about Ramana too? So, although he is taken as a sage epitomising the truth of advaita, it must be recognised that he did not come to his realization through that path, and his utilisation of it, to a certain extent at least, was part of his cultural heritage.*

I would like to conclude with the following brief reflections. These are not made in any negative critical spirit because there are many things about advaita that I unreservedly admire. Its seeing beyond form to the pure reality of Brahman that lies behind all things is an insight of the highest magnitude. However, by dismissing creation as maya and seeing created beings as having no reality other than an ephemeral, illusionary one, it fails to reconcile and integrate being and becoming which I believe is the true purpose of the spiritual path. When the Masters told me to forget the personal self and merge with the universal self they were not saying that the 'I' they were counselling to do this had no existence, but that it had to go beyond itself. When they told me to see all beings as manifestations of the divine they were not saying that these beings had no reality in themselves, but that God was present in everyone.

  • It is true that in absolute terms the essence of your being is in pure being, but if any part of you functions or is expressed on any plane other than pure unmanifest being, which is always the case in this world, then you are a created being and subject to the personal God. This is so even after enlightenment.
  • Advaitins fail to understand that the perfection of being is not in oneness but in relationship.
  • Does the self have real existence or is it just an illusion caused by ignorance and faulty identification with form? I say, in contradistinction to the ego, it has a real, though relative, existence and therefore must be transcended (as a centre) but not denied. However, as the greater includes the lesser, what is transcended is also included, though seen from a totally new perspective. 
  • Advaita says that there is no self and the seeing of this is enlightenment. I say that self does exist but must be actively renounced or surrendered for true holiness and the light to be born. Christ was crucified, that is he had to give up every aspect of his self-nature in a way that was only possible if that self-nature was real. He did not just come to an understanding that he had no self because no such thing existed. 
  • If by maya what is meant is that manifested things have no ultimate reality in themselves, and that behind multiplicity there is unity, then no one could find anything to argue with in the advaita position. This is the standard spiritual belief. But if this is taken to mean that there was no creation and no real individual souls, that is a different matter. If maya is the creative power of God in action, well and good, but if it is reduced to little more than a veil on reality caused by ignorance, as it often seems to be in advaita, that is to misconceive its nature.
  • Advaita says that all is consciousness and that when the sense of 'I' is removed pure consciousness alone remains and there is nowhere further to go as all differentiation and distinction has been removed. There is no individual soul anymore and no God, only the impersonal Brahman. But can this pure consciousness be equated with the divine awareness? Surely the latter would be capable of concentrating on many things (everything, in fact) at once, and this is certainly not a talent possessed by the enlightened human being. In reality the individual soul may have realised its identity with God but it has not become God who remains as a vastly greater Supreme Identity.

If I had to sum up what was missing in advaita, and other non-dualistic systems, I would say that reality encompasses both unity and diversity, and if you restrict it to one or the other then you have missed the mark. And that is what I think advaita does. But this does not mean that it cannot be a genuine spiritual path. It is just not the whole truth and it has limitations which should be understood. So, when I say, admittedly somewhat provocatively, that advaita is illusion I am not referring to its essential point that all things are manifestations of Brahman and that what that is, we, in our essence, are too. The only aspect of it that I do not accept is that the oneness of all things precludes the relative (though real) reality/existence of created things. For God is infinite being and what He creates is real even if it derives all its being from Him.

*It’s been pointed out to me that Ramana’s teachings do actually go beyond advaita in that they include elements from other sources such as Kashmir Saivism and Tantra. There may even be some (limited) influence from Christianity. He did, after all, attend a Christian school, and when he first went to Arunachala he wrote the famous note saying that he was going in search of his Father and in obedience to his command. But still advaita Vedanta is the main influence on how he expressed his realisation. And anyway, none of this alters my general point about the limitations of advaita. In fact, if anything, it supports it.

Monday 19 May 2014

The Threefold Path

There is some debate these days about whether or not spiritual effort is a contradiction in terms, but what's the alternative? Just being in the now? Try that and see where it gets you. You may experience an initial sense of wakefulness and peace but that will soon wear off once it ceases to be a novelty. For the fact is that while spiritual practice on its own will not make you a spiritual person, you will not get anywhere without it. It is perfectly true that no amount of practice can turn a self-centred ego-bound creature into an authentic saint or sage since spirituality cannot be reduced to a technique or mechanical process that gets you from a to b regardless of your motive for the journey - it would be meaningless if that were so. But, given the right attitude, which is one of humility and sincerity, correct practice will purify the mind and help remove the psychological obstacles to spirituality. It's like cleaning a dirty window so that the light can shine through. The fact that there is always grace does not mean that it can be received by any except the pure in heart; at least not in more than brief and occasional moments.

Some contemporary teachers take the end of the spiritual journey, which they think is pure consciousness, and say you are that now so all you have to do is realise it. Remove ignorance and there it will be shining forth in all its glory. That is at best a half truth. A better way to look at things is to say that you may have the seed of spiritual consciousness within you now but the seed will not develop and grow without being properly tended. This tending is the spiritual path which is both long and hard. There's no getting away from that, and the paucity of genuine saints and enlightened souls in the world surely proves as much. The modern mentality expects quick results but that is not how nature works, and it is not how spiritual life proceeds either.

If it is to be effective the spiritual path has to take us from where we are now. It has to deal with us as human beings with a mind, emotions and a physical body for that, after all, is what most of us identify ourselves as being. So the path must relate to all three aspects of our human nature in order to render these susceptible to the spiritual impulse. We can therefore think of it under three headings which are the level of mind, the level of feelings and the level of action. All of these require attention.

  • On the level of mind we need to learn detachment and discrimination or discernment. Detachment means detachment from the world and the aims and ambitions (including spiritual ones) of the separate self which we are beginning to see is not the true centre of our being. It means standing back from reaction, maintaining inner calm and not resisting what we experience. Discrimination means discrimination between the real and the unreal, the lasting and the transitory, the unchanging truth and the outer forms which both point to and obscure that truth depending on how you look. It also means differentiating between the true real and its many imitations and approximations. Meditation also relates to the level of mind in that it is the means whereby the mind is rendered still and quiet so that what lies behind it (figuratively speaking) may be sensed. The technique of self enquiry (Who Am I?) belongs to this level too, but note that it cannot, by itself, give a valid answer to the question it poses because, without being supported by total surrender, it can never awaken the heart which is where the answer is to be found. Spiritual accomplishment on the level of the mind is symbolised by the sage. 
  • The level of the feelings has to do with the awakening of the heart. This requires an intense love of God, but how many spiritual seekers really have that? Love of God, in the sense I am using it here, is not the same as bhakti yoga which is a path for the devotee type who sees God as a separate object outside himself, and who generally limits his idea of the deity to association with a particular form. I don't dismiss this as a spiritual method but devotion to an ideal is not the same as love for God. By this I mean awareness of the holy presence that lies behind all form (and, for that matter, formlessness),  the supreme spirit that transcends creation while equally being present within every atom, and which has a personal aspect different to but not separate from the impersonal absolute, and which is the source of all love, the totality of all understanding and the centre of the will to good. Bhakti yoga is devotion to something conceived of as outside yourself, but love of God is love for that divine presence existing both within creation and yourself. It sees this presence as beyond form but, at the same time, with an individual aspect for the idea of Being without One who is, or Consciousness without a being conscious of itself does not hold up logically. Remember the Creator said the Masters. The Impersonal Absolute and the Creator are simply two modes of the same thing and cannot be separated, nor can one be seen as ontologically higher than the other. They are one. The Masters also told me many times that love was the key to progress. Love requires a God who loves, who is not just impersonal being. They also made clear that if you don't have the love of God you can never have a true knowledge of God.  Spiritual accomplishment on the level of the feelings is symbolised by the saint. 
  • The level of action is concerned with what you do and why you do it. We all have to act. It is sometimes thought that the enlightened person does not act because truth is in being rather than doing which may be so, but then even doing nothing is a form of action in that it withholds action so is defined by it. So everyone acts. It is why we do what we do that matters, and the basis for right action can be summed up by asking whether we act from our own will or from seeking to do the will of God.  Now the problem with the will of God is how do we know what it is? We must interpret that in relation to ourselves, and many have justified wrongdoing by claiming that they were doing God's will. So self-deception is always possible in this regard but we can protect ourselves from that, to some degree at least, if we act without attachment to the fruits of our action or the sense of I am the doer. And, on an everyday level, doing God's will means that whenever you can either act or react from the personal self or forget the inclinations and desires of that self, you do the latter. Essentially, doing God's will is forgetting your own, and right action arises spontaneously from any given situation when you don't respond from ego.

These are the three aspects of the spiritual path and progress is made when you attend to each one of them in its proper place. If you ignore one you cannot become complete in any of the others because they are all part of a self-consistent whole, and the neglect of any one of them shows that you haven't understood the whole so your grasp of any part of it will be at best partial. Leave out the disciplines relating to the mind and you may reduce your idea of spirituality to the psychic level. Leave out those of the feelings and you may reduce it to the psychological level. And if your actions are not dedicated to serving God what good are they?

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Further Thoughts on the Masters

I've been asked how I know that the Masters are real. Given that my only direct access to them came through a third party, how can I be sure that they exist objectively as beings who are what they say they are? Although, since they said very little about themselves, perhaps I should rephrase that to ask how can I be sure that they are what I claim them to be?

This is a fair question but it's one that comes from a certain level of consciousness, namely one rooted in logic and reason. Now logic and reason are important in this field, as in all others, for without them a spiritual approach can fall into all kinds of superstitious error. We need them to act as essential checks and balances on intuitive impressions and religious beliefs. Nevertheless, on their own, they cannot discern metaphysical truth, and they are superseded by direct spiritual insight. I appreciate that phrase is meaningless to mainstream contemporary opinion but that's because such opinion has limited itself to the external world of appearances, and cannot accept as real what is beyond the reach of the physical sciences.

The facts are as follows. During periods of meditation I was spoken to by what appeared to be discarnate entities through the medium of another human being. These voices (as there were more than one) referred to themselves as Masters on some occasions but, when asked what they actually were, told me just to think of them as messengers from God. They made no high-flown claims for themselves but used this term merely as a simple description.

Some possible interpretations of this experience are;
  1. The medium, Michael Lord, was a fraud and was consciously making this up.
  2. He was doing this without being aware that he was doing it, i.e. it came from his subconscious mind.
  3. Uncoordinated mental energies, which are the product of human thought and imagining, floating about in what might be termed psychic space, assume a kind of semi-life for a period when attention is directed towards them, at which point they can take on a semblance of reality and be channeled by the psychically impressionable.
  4. Deceitful spirits on the astral plane were amusing themselves by posing as spiritually enlightened beings.
  5. This was a standard channeling experience in which discarnate beings adopt the persona of enlightened spiritual masters in order to absorb energy from their listeners.
  6. It was what it purported to be.
Perhaps there are some other explanations but I think they would be variations on one of the themes above.

Let's look at some of these interpretations.
  1. If Michael was a fraud on a conscious level he showed a skill, intelligence and insight that he did not begin to approach in any other part of his life. He also never tried to exploit this talent in any way, either with me or publicly. The voices were not his and the sense of power and authority that accompanied them were certainly not his either.
  2. Much of what was said above applies here too. Michael's unconscious mind would have had a wisdom not possessed by, or even approached, by anyone I have ever met or, for that matter, heard of. It would have had the ability to assume several quite different and very powerful individualities, and known things about me that Michael did not and could not know, as well as tell me things about myself that I was unaware of but could see on reflection were true.
  3. I think this explanation accounts for quite a lot of mediumship. Usually nothing very profound or insightful comes from it. It tends to lack focus and purpose, consisting, for the most part, of bland spiritual platitudes, already known and accepted by the medium. It is more general than particular, the very reverse of my experience.
  4. Also quite common in channeling circles. It can range in content from elaborate descriptions of the inner cosmos, heavy on occult detail, to flowery, devotional communications for the spiritually sweet of tooth. The Masters who spoke to me fell into neither category, being exclusively concerned with pointing out to me the ways in which I was bound to the lower self or ego.
  5. In my view many teachings from so called ascended masters fall into this category. There are, however, significant differences between these teachings and the ones that came through Michael. The most significant, though the least obvious to an outsider, is the matter of vibration. The spiritual intuition will always be able to determine what has a truly sacred quality and what doesn't. Unfortunately a lot might seem sacred that certainly isn't, and that is especially so these days when spirituality has been made a good deal more democratic, not entirely to its advantage. On a more concrete level, I might point to the fact that the Masters who spoke to me made no claims as to status, were solely interested in spiritual instruction, required no praise or worship, never discussed such fantasies as a New Age of love and brotherhood, did not encourage dependence, and did not give me their names or discuss anything to do with the personality. In contradistinction to the often long and rambling communications from the psychic plane theirs were always short and to the point. There was no fat on their messages.
  6. This is obviously my preferred option. In fact it is the true one!
The Masters don't have a very good press in some quarters nowadays because there has been a certain amount of foolishness spoken in their name through the channeling phenomenon. In addition, some aspirants dismiss any kind of spiritual help as 'dualistic', and say that truth can only be found within and independently. That may well be so but it does not preclude help and guidance from a true teacher which all of us need at some stage on our journey, particularly to point out ways in which we might deceive or delude ourselves, an ever-present danger on the spiritual path. It is also believed in the non-dualistic world that a realised soul, once the body has died, is gone for good. But the assurance of Jesus that he would be with his disciples to the end of the world completely contradicts this. As does the fact that the Masters told me that they were closer to me than my own skin, and always knew what was in my mind. Hence my view that some liberated souls may cease to have any contact with the phenomenal worlds but others retain that in order to direct, guide and serve suffering humanity.

When it comes down to it, it is up to each individual as to whether or not he or she can accept the reality of spiritual Masters. Meeting The Masters was not designed to convert anybody to that belief but to confirm to those already open to it that their intuition is correct. It can be a cold, dark world for the sensitive aspirant trying to make sense of life and its purpose. The knowledge that there are beings of light and love who have us in their care and under their guidance, even if we can't perceive them, should be a consolation and a source of strength when life's trials seem almost overwhelming.