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.