Atma-vichara Vs. Other Sadhanas

Ramana Maharshi is making some bold yet also reasonable claims. The first is that Self-inquiry (atma-vichara) is the most direct means to Self-realization. The second is that, unlike other spiritual practices (sadhanas), it provides us with “the only raft” (Be As You Are, p. 55, my italics).

Let’s see whether we can make sense of these two claims while also softening both.

Ordinary Sadhanas

Maharshi’s critique of other forms of meditation (dhyana) is that they amount to holding on to an ego-object structure. So, he states, “Dhyana is concentration on an object. It fulfils the purpose of keeping away diverse thoughts and fixing the mind on a single thought, which must also disappear before realisation” (p. 54).

To see the point he’s making, consider some form of breath control (pranayama). During pranayama, the mind may become one-pointed as attention remains, say, on the third eye. But what is it like 30 minutes after pranayama? The same mental chatter resumes, and the key is that the mind required an object for the meditation itself. That is to say, the key, for Maharshi, is to relinquish all objectifying tendencies, and so any form of meditation that does not necessitate that relinquishment cannot take you Home.

Another way of putting this critique is to say that Maharshi is focused on pure awareness, not on attention. The latter, necessarily, is always objectifying while pure awareness is beyond as well as prior to all attention. Therefore, any practice worth its salt must ultimately bring us beyond attending and to pure awareness.

Claim #1: The Most Direct Means

Maharshi suggests that Self-inquiry is the most direct means, and about this he is right. It must be the most direct just because it is pointing us straightaway to the Ground of all becoming.

Yet the claim needs to be softened a bit. I would say that any approach can called the most direct so just long as it points straightaway to This Very Reality. Understood thus, the natural koan in Zen and the huatou in Chan also fit the bill. And, in actual practice (i.e., “from the inside”), I can make out no essential difference between Self-Inquiry, the natural koan, and the huatou.

The scope of Maharshi’s claim so widened, any meditation that is a direct pointing would also count as being the “most direct means” of realization.

Claim #2: The Only Raft

Arguing along similar lines, I would submit that Self-inquiry is the only kind of raft that can bring us Home. For Maharshi is surely right to say that the “mental modification of the ‘I'” (the short, though perhaps somewhat misleading or confusing translation is the “I-thought”) grabs a hold of an object. When the I is modified, it is already grabbing on to something: a thought, a perception, a memory, a sensation (which is implicitly called “mine”), etc. Therefore, he is right on the mark when he states that only when the “I-thought,” being intensely held on to, relinquishes all objectivity can it sink back into the Heart/Self. That sinking back or dissolution is realization.

In Rinzai Zen, it is said that once the doubt sensation has arisen, there can be the Doubt Block (or the Great Doubt). This is all-encompassing, all-pervading, so much so that all ego-thought freezes.

My interpretation is that different cultural traditions–Advaita and Zen, for instance–and different spiritual paths–Self-inquiry and huatou, say–are converging on the same basic insight. Now, during what may be the beginning of a Second Axial Age, is the time to spell all this out as clearly as possible.

When All Samskaras Have Been Given Up…

In Be as You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, Ramana Maharshi states, “[W]e have simply to throw out all the age-long samskaras [innate tendencies] which are inside us. When all of them have been given up, the Self will shine alone” (p. 15).

A samskara is an ego-self tendency. Any form of reactivity (for instance, anger or sadness or shame) and any thought-looping (“I don’t want to be seen this way,” etc.) would be a sign that a samskara has arisen.

The simple truth, very akin to a store going out of business, is that everything held onto must go.

Suppose that one of my samskaras is the fear of loss. The body experiences the fear in the form of certain physical sensations while the mind cycles through imagined scenarios of loss as well as through ways of preventing these imagined losses.

To say that “everything held onto must go” is, mark this, not to send off the loss or the thoughts or the emotions. Doing so will only ensure that they come back. No, one must go is the basis or root or relative source of this fear of loss. And that is, as Shankara knew, the “I am the body idea.” For he rightly said that the “I am the body idea” is the source of all misery.

In the meantime, each samskara must be allowed to arise and must be approached non-judgmentally and curiously from multiple angles. Get behind the mind and, said Nisargadatta, take a keen look at it from the outside. Truly, when all samskaras have been given up, then only Ultimate Reality remains, shining forth unimpeded and unencumbered.

Whatever you’re holding onto, can you see it clearly? That is, can you let it be seen? And, seeing it clearly and intimately, can you let it fade away? And can you trace this samskara back to the relative source of all samskaras–namely, the ego-self? And can you intuit that this relative source is, in actuality, not real?

Theism And Panentheism

A couple of days ago, I went to my book shelf to see what I might like to read next. I grabbed The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as well as an unassuming book entitled The English Mystical Tradition by David Knowles, a Benedictine monk, Catholic priest, and historian until his death in 1974.

I remember picking this book up at the Ojai Public Library’s semi-annual book sale back when my wife and I lived in Ojai, California. It would have been a sunny day, and the books, on tables and in boxes outside, would have been well picked through by the time we arrived. Still, few, then as now, would have been intrigued by The English Mystical Tradition, and the book itself, though aged and dusty, has a newish feel.

Right at the beginning, Knowles shows his cards; doing so makes plain the immense difference between traditional theism and the nondual teaching. For he writes,

How then, have the theologians interpreted the message of the Scriptures? They have taken their stand upon two basic Christian doctrines: the transcendent immanence of God and the divine sonship given us by Christ.

God is at once transcendent and immanent in His creatures. H is transcendent, and therefore cannot be attained or comprehended or experienced as He is in Himself by any created faculty; yet He is immanent in creation by His power, His presence, and His essence, for without this power and presence no creature could exist. This is true of all creation, but it is eminently true of the spiritual world of soul. God is Spirit, and the soul is made in His likeness, with the faculties of knowledge and love and (within limits) of self-determination. (pp. 6-7)

Theism and nonduality agree that God is transcendent. It could be said that God’s transcendence refers to His going beyond all worlds, all minds, and all bodies–in short, beyond all form and manner of limitation. Transcendence is thus boundlessness.

Both equally agree that God is immanent for God is surely in all beings. God breathes life into all that exists, and truly all that exists depends, ontologically so, upon God.

The first clue to a significant difference in perspective comes with the particular kind of “transcendent immanence of God.” For Knowles, immanence is exhausted in the claim that God is is in all of “His creatures,” whereas nonduality wishes to go one, radical step further, stating that, yes, God is in all manifestation (i.e., all things “participate in” God), also through all creation (cf. the Holy Spirit), and also is all creation (identity).

To taste the difference, consider this short passage from Swami Ramdas, a nineteenth century Indian mystic:

Forget not the central truth that God is seated in your own heart. Don’t be disheartened by failures at initial stages.

Cultivate the spirit of surrender to the workings of his will, inside you and outside you, until you have completely surrendered up your ego-sense and have known that he is in all, and he is all, and you and he are one.

“You and he are one”: yes, it may be said, due to divine grace but not temporarily and not, finally, with even a hair’s breath of separateness. Tat tvam asi: you, essentially, are That.

The Heart Sutra says it all and with perfect Zen concision: “Form is formlessness, formlessness form.”

The Poignancy Of Barrenness And Death

I didn’t see them and something felt deeply, unmistakably wrong.

Two nights ago, while on a walking meditation in the backyard, Alexandra and I stopped to remark upon what appeared to be the flapping of a small wing. Alexandra also swears that she recalls hearing squawking or squeaking. Maybe we also imagined a small mouth opening while pinprick eyes remained shut.

Over the course of several weeks, we’d watched the mother and father slowly build the nest. They’d do it in the mornings, with one flying off to gather a twig, then stumbling into the tree, then crawling clumsily on top of the other, then dropping the twig, and then leaving to do it again. Meanwhile, the builder, the one on whose back the gatherer had gropingly climbed, would move the twig to where it would add greater stability to the nest. The whole thing was quite comical, almost farcical.

In the afternoons, they rested.

And then they stopped and were nowhere to be seen. To us, the nest seemed half-finished and was not an altogether pretty sight. No high sides to speak of. No firm base. A rather flimsy affair, in our opinion. “That’s going to hold multiple eggs? Please.”

No matter because some weeks after they pronounced it done, they had come back. We could observe them taking turns, each sitting in the nest for perhaps 8 or 12 hours at a time. Were they guarding over it to ensure that no other mourning doves would take it? (Why would any dove want to steal that ramshackle thing?) Pray, what were they up to? We didn’t know.

For we couldn’t make out any eggs–not until one morning maybe a week or so ago when I saw a cracked eggshell lying on the ground. So, she had had them after all and had lost one already. I could notice a dull, mild ache somewhere inside me. She was still up there, unaffected.

Every time we were outside, she or he was up in the tree, looking unperturbed. I grew accustomed to checking on her, or him, from out of the master bathroom window, from a few viewpoints in the backyard, at different times of day.

“I was so looking forward to seeing the fledgling in the backyard,” Alexandra lamented. She said this yesterday when, peering up at the nest, we could only make out a disheveled mess. No mother. No father. And no baby.

What broke our hearts were three episodes spaced out in uneven intervals that morning: one dove returned to the nest and in great distress looked around, sensing that something was terribly wrong. A little while later, the same or another dove did the same, its head jerking around in pain, in shock, in disbelief as if asking: “My God, what the hell happened here? And where, where, where’s the baby?” Plain to see is that the mother or father was freaking out. Once more a similar scene replayed itself.

And now as the morning sunlight gleams through the tree, it’s clear that the nest is empty and that the ones who remain have gone elsewhere. Together? Alone?

Was it a hawk, a thief in the night, that turned their life upside-down? A sly roadrunner? To them, it can’t matter. It can’t matter because this year no fledgling, thumping down to the ground, will sit in the corner of our backyard, opening her eyes to the vast Southwestern sky, looking dumbfounded and scared, learning to fly haphazardly, not knowing–maybe never–what all this is all about. It’s all gone.

Any feeling person must ache with the shattering poignancy of barrenness and death.

Ayam Atma Brahma

To be sure, The Upanishads, shimmering in beauty and draped in mystery, are known for their arresting formula, but the muscular directness gives to this one the feel of the highest koan: “ayam atma brahma.” That is, “The Self is Brahman.”

I suggest that this formula has “the feel of the highest koan” just because it nicely combines two basic koan. The first is: “Who am I?” or more simply “Who?” It certainly seems as if I am a separate self, a jammed-together bodymind. For aren’t these desires my own? Aren’t these hands mine and mine alone? Do I feel your pain? And aren’t my thoughts private? Plain to me is the idea that I was born and plainer still is the idea that I will die. Equally plain, it seems to me, is my own limitations in time and in space. To say that I am a creature of finitude is to say, quite reasonably methinks, that I am limited. QED.

Not so, rejoins The Upanishads. In the second verse of The Mandukya Upanishad, we find: “Brahman is all, and the Self is Brahman.” Atman is the answer to the first koan: “Who am I, really? Well, I am Atman, the True Self.” Somehow, this means that I am not the bodymind after all; that I am not finite and, because finite, limited; that I was not born and therefore that I cannot die.

How can this be? In Verse 17 of “Reality in Forty Verses,” Ramana Maharshi writes,

To those who do not know the Self and to those who do, the body is the ‘I.’ But to those who do not know the Self the ‘I’ is bounded by the body; while to those who within the body know the Self the ‘I’ shines boundless. Such is the difference between them (The Complete Works of Sri Ramana Maharshi, p. 95, my emphases)

It is not the case that the one so enlightened–the one who knows that she is the Self–is presently without form and thus is–I don’t know–flying about or like ether. True, in the deepest samadhi, there is formlessness, but with sense organs and mental sense ‘online,’ the perceptible apparent world appears. It’s not as if, while the body we ordinarily identify with Ramana Maharshi while said body was in existence, Ramana Maharshi was some kind of spirit or celestial being or whatever. No, he was “within the body,” and yet he knew that he was not the body. Thus, for the one for whom “Brahman is all, and the Self is Brahman,” there ceases to be any identification with the bodymind (“not me, not mine,” as the Buddha would say) even as “the body is the ‘I” insofar as everything is “I,” for the “‘I’ shines boundless.” The question really turns on bondage born of ignorance and on boundlessness clear due to apprehension of the Truth.

The second basic koan is: “What is?” or simply “What?” What makes this question more fundamental than “Why is there something rather than no-thing?” is that answering this second basic koan gives one the ability to answer the second one. Said differently, the “why?” question naturally falls away upon realizing the truth of the first.

The answer supplied by The Upanishads is that what truly is is Brahman, the nature of Ultimate Reality. And that Reality is “one without a second”: it is always one and there is no second reality. Thus, this reality must be transcendent in the sense that it goes beyond (a) the limitations of finite minds of all kinds, (b) the limitations of all kinds of embodiment, and (c) the limitations of all kinds of worlds, universes, multiverses, etc. This Ultimate Reality is “supreme” in that it stands alone (All One) and in that from Brahman tumble forth all manner of temporary names and forms. Wonder of wonders, the Unmanifest also manifests; the Uncreated also creates; the Unconditioned also conditions.

What is so startling about this formulation, then, is that via the copula (“is”: isness) the subjective character is yoked together with the objective character. They are so intimate as to be identical. Who I truly am is exactly what truly is.

For one tending toward skepticism, this discussion can’t but raise red flags. The simple reply to the skeptic is that he is rutted in the assumed identification with the finite mind. Insofar as he hasn’t even begun the existential inquiry into what is ultimate, his doubts can’t be taken seriously. He is on the sideline, unwilling to budge. His fear is as palpable as his pride.