Monday 29 September 2014

The Universe and Man’s Place In It

Inevitably at some time in our lives we all wonder what sort of universe we live in. We may not give a great deal of thought to the question and, when it comes down to it, simply follow prevailing beliefs and opinions, whether religious, scientific/materialist or otherwise, but still there can be few people who have not, however briefly, considered the matter, and who will not, as a consequence, lead their lives in a certain way. For the particular worldview we subscribe to will largely determine how we approach life. Here I wish to give what I believe to be the truth behind this question. That is, as much of it as I can currently understand and express. Naturally the truth in its wholeness is vastly greater than anyone in this world can begin to comprehend, but we can draw an outline approximating to the reality.

I will not speak of the unmanifested state that exists prior to the formation of the universe (and, of course, time and space) since to do so cannot be other than speculative. The best we can manage is to say that everything comes from nothing with the proviso that nothing does not mean nothing but no thing. We cannot limit the absolute to nothingness for if it is void of form it is still the progenitor of form so cannot be mere emptiness which, anyway, implies emptiness of something. Furthermore if, as is often said, the absolute can only be expressed by means of negatives, i.e. it is not this and not that, then the negatives of these negatives must also be true. I mean by this that if, for instance, you say that the absolute is impersonal you must also say that it is not impersonal or you are qualifying it and thereby limiting it. If you say it is emptiness, you must equally say that it is not emptiness or you are restricting the infinite, an obvious absurdity.

So, to move on to something a little more comprehensible, I envisage the manifested universe, that is, the absolute once it starts its move into relativity, as a hierarchy of levels that descend from the formless spiritual plane down to the dense material form of this plane (plane meaning discrete state of being/becoming) which is the most 'external' condition of existence.  Each level is, as it were, a condensation of the one above it, but it is also contained within the prior state so although these levels appear as separate they are also parts of a whole which pervades and underlies them all. Thus everything emanates from divine oneness but as it gets further away from the source, and unity becomes multiplicity, so the purity and perfection of that oneness is reduced. Yet, at the same time and without contradiction, the divine oneness is ever present in every atom of the universe, physical and spiritual. God is the source of everything and everything is rooted in Him but as formlessness becomes form, and life becomes projected outwards into differentiation, so there is a sense of distance from God as well.

God expresses Himself abundantly in multiplicity which is given independent being (relatively speaking) in the duality of matter where it becomes self-conscious at which point it must work its way back to the source which it rejoins in full awareness of what it is and what that is. Thus the whole field of becoming is one of dynamic growth. All phenomenal reality exists as a theatre in time and space in which consciousness expresses itself and evolves, evolves meaning here something that unfolds and gains knowledge of its inner potential. The image of seed and tree is a good one. The tree is already contained in the seed and just needs to come out. Evolution, in the sense I am using the word, is the actualising of a potential which is always there. 

The hierarchical order of the universe is reflected in the human being who is a microcosm. Therefore the idea of levels of being all originating from and pervaded by spirit applies here too. The divine spark in man which is the centre of his being is also the point from which all other aspects of his nature derive. Thus although, in one sense, spirit transcends the subtle (formless), mental, psychic and physical levels, in another these are just forms and limitations spirit takes as it expresses itself in duality, duality, of course, being an essential condition for this expression to take place. Both these ways of looking at the picture are equally true, and it is equally necessary to take both into account for a complete understanding.

It is customary nowadays to dismiss the unique significance of the human being. I think that is doing ourselves an injustice. We represent that aspect of divine consciousness which takes up the central position in the cosmic hierarchy because we combine the highest and lowest within ourselves. We are, as the medieval philosophers used to say, part angel and part animal. Now, we cannot fulfill our role as a communication channel between pure spirit and gross matter, and thereby establish a proper harmony in the world, if we do not allow ourselves to be fully open to our spiritual source. It is the angel that must dominate the animal not the other way round. If we deny the angel and enclose ourselves in the lower levels of our being, the physical, emotional and mental levels, if we identify exclusively with any or all of these and give priority to modes of being that belong to those levels, then we are not only betraying our birthright and restricting our growth, we are also failing in our duty to our creator and our role as mediators between Heaven and Earth. This leaves Earth without guidance which means it will fall into a disharmonious state. It is plain that this is precisely what has happened.

So it is up to us to govern ourselves correctly for this is not just a personal matter but something on which the well-being of the whole world depends. We can do this through meditation and prayer on the one hand,  and rigorous self-purification on the other. This will enable our outer self to respond to the voice of the soul and by these means we will acquire a deepening awareness of our true spiritual nature and a growing understanding of God. Our mission on this Earth is to shine forth the inner light but this light will only come when we allow ourselves to love God, not a God of our own imagining or choosing but the one true God that dwells in the heart as our own truest self.

This is what we have to do for the healing of the world in our role as spiritual stewards, but the impact on ourselves will be no less transformational. As we grow in spiritual maturity so we become more and more like God but without ever fully becoming Him. This view contradicts the belief of some that the spiritual path ends in complete absorption in God to the extent that any distinction between God and the soul is lost but I think that is a misinterpretation of what union with God actually means. God is limitlessness and union with Him, oneness with life, is not some static condition of eternal rest nor does it mean total identity of the part with the whole. Even after we have attained this union by giving up our identification with the separate self we will continue to enter into an ever deeper and ever fuller union. We will reflect God to a greater and greater degree without ever exhausting the totality of what God is because there is no end to what He is. So our being may be God but we are not God. Those who think this shows someone still caught up in duality have failed to see that duality continues even after oneness is realised. It continues in a different way and without the sense of separation but it continues because both being and becoming are inexhaustible.

Sunday 21 September 2014


For many people one of the chief benefits of religion lies in what it has to offer in terms of providing an escape from suffering, that being an inevitable fact of existence in this world. Indeed, Buddhism arose specifically from the attempt to understand and, if possible, go beyond suffering. The solution the Buddha found and taught was the cessation of desire. We suffer when we hold on to things so letting go of desire, in particular the attachment to it, brings freedom from pain. You might go further back and say that it's the sense of separation that brings about suffering. If we were one with life we would be complete and nothing could be added to us or taken away from us. So suffering at root is, or comes from, separation.

That is all true and maybe even a truism now, but I want to look at suffering from a different perspective here. I want to look at it in a practical sense as a purifier and the one true agent of spirituality. Today, when all the wisdom teachings of the past are readily available, there are many people presenting themselves as spiritually mature or even enlightened on the basis of a certain amount, small or large, of knowledge and experience. But I must tell you that a person may have all the spiritual understanding in the world but there is no real wisdom without suffering. You may talk of love and profess an awakened heart because you have heard that this is how a spiritual person should be, but there is no possibility of real compassion without having known deep suffering. It is as the Masters have said. In pain alone you get true values.  Pain is the gateway to eternal life because pain strips away falsehood and pretence. You can always tell a genuinely spiritual person by their face and expression. It is not constantly wreathed in smiles telling us what a loving, open, joyous person they are. It is marked by sorrow. I don't mean that they walk around looking miserable. That is self-pity. But they have been through the fires and that is etched into their face for it is suffering, and suffering alone, that cleanses the soul and stamps the heart with spiritual truth. Only pain patiently endured gives depth.

It is a perfectly natural impulse to wish to avoid suffering, and it is certainly a mistake (probably even an act of egotism) to seek it out with the idea of gaining spiritual kudos. But suffering that comes to us in the ordinary course of life, that is, in effect, God-given, that is unavoidable, we should use as an opportunity for self-transcendence. It comes to burn out the fires of ego. It is part of the sacrifice that makes holy, and it is only through such sacrifice that holiness is born in the individual. Only when forced to by pain can we truly begin to give up the self. This is the reality of living in a fallen world. Self has become corrupted and made itself into its own centre. Suffering is what de-centres the self, or does so if the ‘patient’ reacts to it correctly by offering it up to God and using it as an opportunity to go beyond itself. If you can you should even see it as a gift in that you are being given a chance to graduate to a higher spiritual state. You would not be given this gift if you were not thought equal to what it entails.

Now, none of this means that one should not respond to suffering in others or even that one may not pray for one’s own suffering to be alleviated. Suffering is not in any sense a good or desirable thing even if it can be used as a creative thing. The rule must surely be, especially where others are concerned, that one does all one can to relieve suffering, but if attempts to do this come to naught then one must accept the reality of the situation without rancour, resentment or resistance, and this is particularly so in cases where you are the one suffering. See it as a chance to go beyond your present state. Accept the will of God and submit to the experience, seeking to use it as a springboard to greater understanding, an understanding that comes from having lived something not just known about it.

As I have implied, this is a doctrine that can be misused and misunderstood. The fact that suffering is what I have called the one true agent of spiritual purification does not mean that all suffering in this world is sent by God and should just be left to run its course. Indeed, most of it comes from the fact that we live in a fallen, corrupted world in which human beings exploit each other and fail to live in harmony with the truth. This sort of suffering we should do all in our power to redress as well as always being aware of how we might be adding to it and how we can avoid doing that. But there is also spiritual suffering, frequently but certainly not always mental in focus, which we must learn to recognise. Thus we need to acquire discrimination as to what is suffering caused by man’s inhumanity to man and what is suffering that comes as part of treading the spiritual path. Complications can arise when the two become mixed, as they can do, and karmic suffering is another factor to take into account, suffering that may be the result of decisions that individuals or groups of individuals acting collectively have taken. But determining the meaning and probable inner causes of events that occur in life is all part of the process of developing spiritually. We cannot look at these matters in a simplistic way by saying that everything that comes about does so for a single reason. This is a complicated world and we must avoid the temptation to reduce serious spiritual questions to elementary formulae that can be expressed in a quick and easy catchphrase. Nevertheless for the spiritual aspirant it is wise to regard any suffering that enters into your life as having a purpose. That doesn't mean that you just lie down and submit to it. It may have come to enable you to develop the strength to fight it. But you must learn what you can overcome and what you must accept so a good rule would be that initially you seek to solve the problem it presents and if you can't do that then is the time for acceptance and submission to God's will, knowing that his will is always to our own long term advantage even if it does not seem like that from our current limited perspective.

It is a fact that the greatest saints appear to have known the greatest suffering and we also have the example of the suffering of Christ before us, showing us that this is indeed the way to eternal life. And how could it not be, given that the barrier to eternal life is the fallen self or ego whose roots have become so deeply planted in the soil of our being that we mistakenly regard it to be what we really are? But then, to put all this talk of suffering in perspective, we see what it leads to. The risen Christ who has found his identity in God and is thereby released from bondage in form which bondage is the cause of all suffering. So suffering is no more, gone, impossible. Its pain has been transformed into love. For note that form as the expression of spirit, and its opposite pole in manifestation, remains. The risen Christ still has a body, but that now exists as the means to express goodness, truth and beauty. Its power to limit and to hurt has gone. Now it exists only to reveal the glory of spirit and to manifest the perfection of love. And, believe it or not, it is suffering that has made this possible. That is not to justify suffering but to explain its presence because understanding it will diminish the ferocity of its sting.

Monday 8 September 2014

An Advaita Debate concluded

I've had a few reactions to the previous couple of posts and they make a good postscript to the topic under discussion so here they are along with my responses to them. Some readers may feel that I am laboring the point regarding the limitations of a strictly non-dualistic point of view but I think understanding this matter correctly is important for appreciating what a true spirituality actually is. Is it the elimination of the soul or its sanctification? The temptation to a non-theistic form of spirituality is very strong for the modern person who has been raised in a largely scientific/materialistic culture with its monistic and soul-denying assumptions or, at least, implications. It seems more intellectually compatible with that culture, and more ‘advanced’ than what can be written off as a dualistic religion stuck in the relative world. However I think it can be used as an excuse to avoid facing up to the fact that we have a Creator to whom we owe all that we are. There is even a sense in which non-duality can be used as a smokescreen behind which we can hide our spiritual egotism. That may sound a contradiction in terms but by denying self we avoid the fact that we have to give up self and submit to a higher power. There is something of the temptation offered by the serpent in all this.

To avoid misunderstanding I should make quite clear that I am not putting the great Eastern sages in the serpent's camp. Their insights were pure and their lives were holy. They penetrated behind the veil of illusion to perceive the crystal clear image of truth. But everything must be seen in context and the distortion of these insights by the mind can lead to something quite other.

Here’s the first comment.

I would agree with most of what you say here but might not a non-dualist counter that it relates to the world of saguna brahman (God with attributes or qualities) not nirguna brahman (the absolute without attributes or name or form), and that nirguna brahman is the higher state or, better put, the reality beyond all states? So God and the individual soul only relate to the lower, saguna, level?

They might but my response, employing this way of describing things, would be that nirguna brahman might be conceived as the more fundamental state but perhaps saguna brahman is the higher state and the one we are called upon to reproduce in ourselves. The one question no rigidly nondualistic system can answer is why does the unmanifest manifest. To call it divine play is not enough, though hints at the truth. Life manifests to become more, or perhaps you could just say to become rather than simply to be, and therefore a state that combines and resolves being and becoming is higher than one of simple, pure being. But anyway I would also say that the qualities or attributes must already exist in the nirguna state (unexpressed but potential) otherwise they could not come forth from it so even on that score the supposition of an inert absolute, devoid of quality is incorrect. Nothing can come from nothing. All things already exist and are only brought forth or expressed.

Moreover, regarding saguna and nirguna, I don’t put the personal God on a lower level of reality than the impersonal one. I consider them to be two faces of the one reality, just the absolute in different modes relating to passive and active existence. And that, of course, has implications for the question of individuality which is a real God given thing not an illusion of ignorance, as postulated by advaita and Buddhism. So enlightenment does not mean the end of the individual but the end of identification with individuality which is quite a different thing. It is not just the entry into timeless, inert being but the integration of being and becoming.

Another commenter said.

You are right that individual selves, discrete body/mind beings, are a reality, and they need to do serious spiritual discipline (probably over several lifetimes) in order to awaken to the true Self, because the One Self has become all selves which then have to make their way back to the source. And they can only do this gradually. The neo-advaita dogma that you only have to realize the truth here and now in order to know it is nonsense. You can’t realize Truth without freeing yourself from all binding tendencies, at subconscious as well as conscious levels, and, in the process, completely purifying and dis-identifying from the lower bodies or sheaths, and that takes time, a lot of it.

 However would you not agree that on the Absolute level there are no selves and that it is only on the everyday level of illusion that there is a being who gets enlightened? On the non-dual/ultimate level how can you speak of enlightenment or liberation when there is no self to begin with? That’s why most real gurus may speak of karma and reincarnation to those who still see themselves as separate beings but would deny them at the non-dual level.

What you say is what most Buddhists and advaitins believe, but I think there is more to it than that slightly reductionist view because, and please forgive me for repeating this, the spiritual goal is not just the entry into pure being but the integration of being and becoming. That is the higher state and the reason for this whole manifested universe. Or rather love is the reason for existence, and love only exists when there is something rather than nothing. But it must have been there, in potentia, before nothing became something or that could never have happened. And that is why the Christian doctrine of three in one, the idea that the Trinity actually exists at the deepest level of Unity, is a deeper insight into the heart of reality that that of the conventional Eastern non-dualistic religions best represented by Buddhism which basically see the absolute as undifferentiated nothingness. See above for the point that nothing comes from nothing.

I don't disagree that there are no selves at the absolute level, obviously all is God, the One Self, but what I do say is that the spiritual goal is not to enter into the absolute and for the self to disappear. It is to merge the individual soul with the Universal Self, but in that merging the individual remains because the greater always includes the lesser even if it takes on an entirely new aspect and significance. This is the purpose and goal of creation. Perhaps we are misled by the words absolute and relative since the latter carries the implication of something unreal. Maybe the old fashioned (and often rejected as dualistic) description of Creator and creation conveys something important that is lost when we become too caught up in the idea of non-duality and the ‘absolute’. For reality is not a real absolute and an unreal relative but the two together.

The truth is that everything is real, there is no illusion, but different things are real in different ways and on different levels, and our task is to know what these are and then to put everything in its proper place. This is because unity and hierarchy are both equally true. As for karma and reincarnation, these clearly concern only the embodied self. The divine spark is eternally free (even though it may not always know that). But to deny them or speak of them as non-existent is going too far as they are a vital part of the panoply of existence. No embodied being can deny reincarnation or karma because it is the result of that. It can say that spirit remains eternally free on its own plane but that’s altogether a different matter. It’s like saying that nothing ever happens. That is saying precisely nothing. Of course it doesn’t from the perspective of formless existence and of course it does from the perspective of form. Life is formlessness and form together, never one without the other. We must just see them in their correct relationship.

So while there are no selves on the absolute level that is not really the point. The spiritual path is not supposed to lead to our disappearance into the absolute. It is intended to result in the complete integration of so called absolute and relative in our individual soul, the full reconciliation and union of being and becoming, spirit and matter, formlessness and form, and therefore produce the divinized soul. This is the creativity of life. But where does creativity fit into a purely non-dualistic scheme of things?

This led to the inevitable question.

Are you saying that sages of the order of the Buddha and Ramana Maharishi were wrong and you know better than them?

Of course not, but I do think they were speaking from a certain position and that that position, while true, did not encompass the whole truth. Lesser lights have taken it and made of it an exclusive doctrine. The fact is that many other teachers have taken a different view of the relation between absolute and relative, and I go along with them as it coincides with what the Masters conveyed to me, what my own intuition says and, not least, what Jesus taught. I regard the Incarnation as the most significant event that has taken place on this planet, certainly within historical times, and Jesus as the greatest revelation of spiritual truth both in his person and in his teachings. The idea that he was both God and Man (whether literally true or not, I don’t actually take it as such) is the key to what I am saying here. 

The Buddha pointed the way to the absolute. He came at a time of great religious formalism and offered a way out of that by focusing entirely on the practical side of the mystical quest.  That was relevant for his time and place. However maybe the true Middle Way today is neither to identify with nor to deny the individual self. To see that it is me but I am more than it. It has a place in the totality of my being but I should not be limited to or bound by it. At the same time, the individual is the reason for existence because it is what gives life quality. It is not the root of being but it is its fruit for life is being and becoming together, and while the Buddha was right to point to the fact that there is a way out of exclusive becoming, showing us how to step off the wheel of life, his vision of pure being in Nirvana is superseded by that of Jesus who shows us the way to integrate these two aspects of reality and produce from them something entirely new which is the risen Christ.

The soul is born when eternity enters into time. Its task then is to return to eternity but taking with it the gifts of time.