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.

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