The Nondual Teaching: On The Teaching Tool Known As ‘Levels’

The Nondual Teaching: A Puzzle

The nondual teaching can be very direct: You are Pure Awareness. That’s it. Period.

Most pilgrims on the Way, however, will not be ripe enough to apperceive the Truth to which “You are Pure Awareness” is directly, vividly, immediately pointing.

What then?

On the Metaphor of Levels

In The Direct Path: A User Guide, Greg Goode provides us with a nice discussion of the metaphor of levels:

[T]he division into layers [or levels of consciousness] is a pedagogical device. It is a series of pointers that get more subtle as the student’s understanding deepens. At some point, the teachings plan that these very notions of layers [or levels] will themselves be investigated and seen through. This usually happens at the later end of the teaching, after these tools have done their job in showing the nonduality between the world, mind and the self. At this point, the tool is no longer needed and can itself be investigated and deconstructed….

The Direct Path: A User Guide, p. 200.

Goode confides helpfully:

I’m actually glad that tools and models like these are available. In my own inquiry, a few of these models grabbed my attention and drew me into the teaching. If the nondual teachings said only that “awareness is all, period,” I wouldn’t have known where to begin. It would have struck me as too abstract and irrelevant.

Ibid, p. 200.

Levels can operate as a “step ladder” (itself a metaphor, of course): it helps us jettison false identities by assuring us that we can accept provisional higher identifications. From the higher, the lower is seen and negated.

With the above in view, I’d like to discuss the teaching device called “the witness.”

Wei Wu Wei on the Negative Way

Wei Wu Wei is a firm proponent of the negative way (see Ask the Awakened: The Negative Way as well as Posthumous Pieces). First, negate the object–all objectivity. Second, negate the subject to whom objects apparently appear. And, third, if need be, negate any more archetypal subjects like a Cognizer or a Willer or even an Awarer (to borrow a name from Stephen Wolinsky). This unremitting process of negation reveals what Wei Wu Wei terms “Absolute Absence,” which is none other than “Absolute Presence.”

Notice, at least ostensibly, how Wei Wu Wei does not avail himself of “levels.” While it’s certainly true that Chan Buddhism may give one a koan and then will not allow one to get a handhold or foothold anywhere and while it’s also true that appealing to levels is not a necessary teaching device, I would argue that it’s easier to help people along the Path if they’re given some provisional handholds for the time being. The danger associated with the negative way is that too many pilgrims will, without some intellectual understanding of the Dharma, fall into the “void of annihilation.” In our modern nihilistic culture, this pitfall needs to be taken very seriously.

A Graph as Symbolic Representation

How do we take the negative way seriously while positing a couple of levels that may aid the student in realizing her True Nature?

Let me propose that the negative way–pertaining, especially, to first-level subject and object–can be placed along the x-axis.

Now at y = 1 put “the witness” and at y = 2 “Nisargadatta’s sense of I am.”

Through exercises and experiments, one can readily take one’s stand as the witness. From this vantage point, it is much easier to negate what one is not: not the body, not the senses, not the mind, not the ego. True, it may take some serious, steady investigation of the body, senses, mind, and ego in order to stabilize in this understanding. True also, taking one’s stand as the witness–as that which perceives whatever is being perceived; as that which knows what is shown; as that light on account of which there is any appearing in the first place–can make this process clear and straightforward.

Now, when the witness turns in on itself in order to take an interest solely in itself, then one has, so to speak, gone up to y = 2. Here, one knows “from the inside” what Nisargadatta refers to as “I am.” “I am,” in his sense, is the first emergence of actuality. It is both the whisper of the beginning of bondage (since it’s a short step from “I am” to “I am this“) and the gateway to Self-recognition. One can readily abide in and as “I am,” and such is precisely the late teaching of Nisargadatta.

At the point at which one steadily abides as “I am,” it’s very clear that the negative way has concluded. I am not the body, the senses, the mind, or the ego. Also, I am, not unto myself, the witness. And it’s utterly apparent that only Divine Grace can “carry one over” from “I amness” into pure nonduality. Here is the passive-active opening, the complete giving up and over, the total welcoming, the final surrender.

Levels and Self-inquiry

Self-inquiry, of the kind described above, naturally “consumes” what is beneath it. In the end, of course, it consumes itself. Therefore, no more levels. Therefore, “Awareness is all, period.”

Naturally, Self-inquiry gives way to Self-abidance, and Self-abidance is revealed to be nothing but “Just be still and know that I am God.”

Nisargadatta’s Teaching In 5 Verses

The earlier teaching of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (as opposed to the late teaching focused centrally on the sense of “I am”) is nicely summarized in what I’ll term five verses to be found at the beginning of Maurice Frydman’s beautifully edited I Am That (1973):

[Verse 1:] The seeker is he who is in search of himself.

[Verse 2:] Give up all questions except one: ‘Who am I? After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Struggle to find out what you are in reality.

[Verse 3:] To know who you are, you must first investigate and know what you are not.

[Verse 4:] Discover all that you are not: body, feelings, thoughts, time, space, this or that; nothing, concrete or abstract, which you perceive can be you. The very act of perceiving shows that you are not what you perceive.

[Verse 5:] The clearer you understand that on the level of mind you can be described in negative terms only, the quicker will you come to the end of your search and realize that you are the limitless being.

Verse 1: Self-knowledge

Verse 1 tells us two important things. First, what will be laid out, in what follows, is the path of knowledge (jnana)–not that of devotion (bhakti) and not that of action (karma). This too is how Shankara’s Atma Bodha begins. Second, it must be understood that the seeker does not ultimately seek happiness, peace, goodness, or God–not per se. Instead, the seeker only seeks himself. This point is worth contemplating deeply.

Therefore, this that follows is the path of self-knowledge.

Verse 2: The Central Question

Once one realizes that one is only seeking oneself, it becomes clear that one must ask: “Who am I?” or “What am I?”

After all, one can readily see that one one does not yet really know oneself. The only thing one knows for certain is that “I am.” I know that I am, but I do not know what I am.

This “gap” in understanding allows the central question to arise with the utmost earnestness. Hold fast to the question, to the flavor of the question–and nothing else.

Verse 3: The Negative Way, Part 1

To Western ears, it may sound strange to hear that we can’t know who we are (since, in these verses, knowledge is understood solely in a dualistic key). But we can know what we aren’t.

This is the hallmark of the negative way. Therefore, we’re entreated to see clearly everything that we’re not–and to set ‘all this’ aside, to dispense with it, even.

Through this means, two things become clear. First, we cease identifying with what we knowingly are not. Second, we open more deeply to what, wordlessly, we are.

Verse 4: The Negative Way, Part 2

In Verse 4, Nisargadatta offers us an inventory of what we aren’t. Of course, we need to see this first-hand: these are just clues, or pointers. Needless to say, we are not “this” or “that”–not any “this” or “that.” In which case, “I am,” standing alone, cannot be docked to any object.

Then we learn a very important Vedantic principle: whoever perceives cannot be what is perceived. Atmananda in particular uses this principle to good effect throughout his teachings.

We’re knocking on the doorstep of The Upanishads: if we are not a “this” or a “that,” nonetheless we are That which makes possible all risings of “this” or “that.” We are the “unseen seer.” Has this been directly understood?

Verse 5: The Limits of Mind

The key qualifier here is “on the level of the [finite] mind.” Verse 5 sums up what has been learned in Verses 3 and 4. That is, after one has seen that one is “not this… not this…,” one can take a backward leap and realize, “Oh, this spells out the limits of mind. Objectifying is just how mind works.”

At which point, there is relaxation, sinking, openness, welcoming, receptivity. In the late teaching, Nisargadatta will emphasize, right at the outset, abiding in the “I am” since this, right here, is the “portal” or “doorstep” or “gateless gate” to Divine Grace. In I Am That, which is first published in 1973 and which counts as an earlier teaching, however, Nisargadatta is still keen for us to use the power of the mind to realize the limits of the mind. Either way, there must be a passive-active act of surrender. Since the ego is nothing but a ghost, shall we joke and say that we must “give up the ghost”?

The Progressive Path Vs. The Direct Path

It’s taken me some time to understand why some teachers–most especially, perhaps, Atmananda and Jean Klein–have circled back quite often to critiques of the progressive paths and to apologias for the direct path. Since my background is in Zen Buddhism and in Advaita Vedanta, I’ve only ever known, with any especial tintimacy, direct path teachings. I can now see, I think, what the thrust of the critique of progressive paths are, at least as these are presented by certain Vedantins.

My interpretation of Jean Klein’s critique of the progressive path, a critique that can be found in an extended form in Who Am I?: The Sacred Quest, is that it amounts to spiritual materialism (Trungpa Rinpoche’s term here, not Klein’s). Klein’s worry is that one on a progressive path is engaged in a long, arduous, and ultimately fruitless quest: the fundamental presupposition is that the subject is not in play, only the object, with the tragic result that through “elimination” and “purification” the spiritual seeker will pass, dialectically so, through higher and higher stages of “development.” The terminus of this path is what Klein terms “the blank state”: a trance-like state that is empty of objectivity.

What’s the problem, then?

It’s two-fold. In the first place, the presupposition that there exists an ego-self, a subject, is left intact even at the end, and this presupposition becomes harder to undercut–or so Klein avers–by the time the practitioner reaches “the blank state” (or manolaya in Sri Ramana’s language). And in the second place, such an ego-self has set off on a journey in which there is, from the outset, the assumption that there is something to achieve, that there is an attainment to be had. In other words, the ego exists as a striver. By the end of this path and because of these rigidified presuppositions that only serve to reinforce an illusory sense of a separate self, the seeker is “stuck,” with no going “forward” or “backward.” Hence the tragedy.

By contrast, Klein states, “The basic supposition of the direct way is that your global non-state is already there [or: here], is natural to you [since it is you], and it ‘waits’ for the deep relaxation of the habits of mind and body. This is God, grace, the presence that appears [initially] in the openings between your egoistical pursuits. It is always present” (Who Am I?, p. 118).

In other words, the direct path places, in all experiences, the accent on the Background of all experience. Hence, Atmananda, for instance, will speak of all experience as “pointing to” You, the Ultimate; of all experience as “rising” and “falling” in You, the Ultimate; as all experiences as being “made up of” You, the Ultimate. Every single experience, then, is nothing but You.

While I think defenders of the direct path tend to overplay their hand (after all, some provisional levels, as teaching tools, are often smuggled in here and there–examples include Witnessing, body work to allow the bodymind to become more sattvic, and so on), I’ll leave for another time a more nuanced account of how the direct path can sprinkle in, as helpful devices, some progressive elements when such, in keeping with upaya, are called for.

A Mind Free From Formulation & Conception

Niu-T’ou Fa-yung (594-657) asks the Patriarch, the Chan master Tao-hsin: “As you do not permit contemplation, what do you do when mental attitude emerges?”

Tao-hsin: “The origin of mental attitude is neither good nor bad; its emergence is due to your mind. If your mind were free from formulation or conception, how could illusions occur? When illusions do not occur, the real mind will be free to be aware of everything. You just follow the mind as it is. Do not look for ways to deal with it. This is called the ever abiding essence of things [dharmakaya]” (The Original Teaching of Chan Buddhism, trans. Chang Chung-Yuan, pp. 19-20).

You just follow the mind as it is. Do not look for ways to deal with it. No touching. No poking. No cajoling. No manipulating. No yes this or no that. Just keen observant accepting of whatever is arising.

Enough said.

Modern Gnosticism: Endless Torment

New Instagram Account

If you’ve been reading this blog for some time, then you might be interested in my new Instagram account. Its central focus is nondual spirituality.


The Kosmos Conception

The kosmos, as an intelligible order encompassing all that exists, emerges in the West, notes the philosopher Remi Brague, with the Greeks. Among the four models he explores in his wonderful book The Wisdom of the World: The Human Experience of the Universe in Western Thought (2003), it’s the last one on Gnosticism that I feel is worth unpacking here.

Gnosticism is the “bad boy” of the bunch that otherwise includes a Platonic, an Epicurean, and a biblical model in that, around 2nd C CE, it begins to challenge, without yet breaking, the mold. It presents this challenge by advancing not an alternative kosmos but instead, and more radically so, an “anticosmism” (p. 62).

Anticosmism, Part 1: Gnosticism

I’d like to dwell with you on this anticosmism because I believe it portends one modern sensibility that, through a reading of Gnosticism, can thus be brought out.

And what is the world (or universe) according to Gnostics? It is “the epitome of evil, a trap and a prison” (p. 70). This is to say that “[t]he world is not our natural habitat” (p. 68). This material plane is one onto which we human beings have been “thrown.” So thrown, we don’t find, nor can we catch, our footing hither or thither.

If the world is not a natural habitat for us, if it is not a proper dwelling place, then what of the soul? The soul, which has been “thrown into the world,” is and remains–just so long as it has not transcended this prison–“a stranger in the world” (p. 69). This is alienation of the highest degree.

In brief, we are strangers in a fallen, ill-begotten world, one that has either been “botched” or one that is the product of an evil demiurge. Thus, what is felt on all sides is a gnawing anguish: “Anguish is in fact the raw material of the world: the world is not only in anguish, it is so to speak “of” anguish the way a plank is made of wood” (p. 67).

Accordingly, the soul “seeks an exit” (p. 69), a way out of this anguish, and thus the deep need for gnosis, or salvific knowledge.

Anticosmism, Part 2: Modern Gnosticism

I think we can find a parallel with Gnosticism in modern society; I’ll deign to call this parallel “modern Gnosticism.” The essence of this particular modern sensibility is torment, a riven, twisted, burdened spirit.

To begin with, far from there being a kosmos (for more on the latter, see, e.g., here), the world is instead nothing but a hard place, one indeed that is not fit for humans. It’s this lack of fitness that gives us not acosmism (about which I’ve also written) but a decidedly anticosmic bent. From this disenchanted moment in modern history, it can’t be said that a devil created this modern form but it can be thought, among modern, partially secularized Gnostics, that it’s as if an evil demiurge had created this almost insufferable place.

Because the world is a hard, insufferable place, humans must struggle into perpetuity. The struggle involves bringing all that we have in order to meet the daily grind, the ceaseless–or, perhaps just as bad, intermittent–onslaught of bad news. If it’s not one thing, then it’s another… We might say that this struggle cultivates in one a certain dark humor together with a graveness. The world weighs on human shoulders, on backs, on shattered feet and doleful hearts.

It might be wondered at why there is no eschatology in this picture, but, apart from gesturing to modern Gnosticism’s emergence in a post-Christian time, no more need be said on this score in this post. It’s enough, here, to gesture at the halfhearted nature of modern Gnosticism’s response: we are to find succor by banding together in our woe, our torment so that, through this means, we may experience bouts of relief, those that alleviate the burden before passing away in turn. Our burdens can’t be lifted; they can only be set down–before they’re picked back up–through the consolations–sought after yet unfulfilling–that we offer one another. This is a journey we take alone and with each other, one that ultimately can go nowhere. Still, we must take it. And take it. And undertake it.

We must take it because there is no other: there is, modern Gnostics everywhere aver more in their actions than in their words, no exit, no salvation, no liberation. We can’t rest here and we can’t leave. We are tormented, hollowed out through and through.

Metaphysics and Eschatology

I offer this post in the spirit of friendship. Compassion is to be given to those stuck in modern Gnosticism. At the same time, seeing the limits of this sensibility is paramount. For the deepest problem of our time is religio, the binding–or rebinding–of the human to the divine. For this, what is required is a metaphysics inclusive of the Godhead and of the kosmos as well as–and flowing from such a metaphysics–an eschatology that shows, through gentle feet and guiding hands, the way back Home. That metaphysics, I argue, is nonduality, and the eschatology is centered on moksha, or liberation. Home, it can be directly seen, is, has always been, cannot but be underfoot.