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.”