The Negative Way, The Traditional Positive Way, And Atmananda’s Innovative Positive Way

I believe a considerable methodological mistake Wei Wu Wei makes can be found here:

Absolute is phenomenally negative, objects phenomenally positive. That is why only by totally negating the positive can Absolute be revealed, for the negation of phenomena lays bare Noumenon.

Posthumous Pieces, P. 207, my emphasis.

And here (though see my emendation):

[Only] When the ultimate object has been negated,
Then what remains is I,
and I am the affirmation of all that has been denied. (p. 209)

Ibid, p. 209

I believe this emendation (“Only when…”) is warranted as this epigraph appears just two pages after the sentences cited on p. 207.

Now, Wei Wu Wei not wrong to emphasize the Way of Detachment or the Negative Way. He’s just wrong to draw the conclusion that the negative methodology he endorses is the only viable one. That is, he’s definitely right that this is the “classical way” to Truth. But he misreads the stunning inventiveness of Sri Atmananda (whom he did read) who, in fact, argued for both the Negative Way and for a novel version of the Positive Way.

The traditional version of the Positive Way is plain in classical Advaita: It’s (e.g.) Aham Brahmasmi (the affirmation: “I am Brahman.”) Zen, in addition to its commitment to the Negative Way, also has a traditional Positive Way. It’s front and center in this koan case:

Joshu once asked Nansen, ‘What is Tao?’ Nansen answered, ‘Ordinary mind is Tao.’ ‘Then should we direct ourselves toward it or not?’ asked Joshu. ‘If you try to direct yourself toward it, you go away from it,’ answered Nansen. Joshu continued, ‘If we do not try, how can we know that it is Tao?’ Nansen replied, ‘Tao does not belong to knowing or to not-knowing. Knowing is illusion; not-knowing is blankness. If you really attain to Tao of no-doubt, it is like the great void, so vast and boundless. How, then, can there be right and wrong in the Tao?’ At these words, Joshu was suddenly enlightened.

(My bolded text)

But what Atmananda also offers is as elegant as it is unique: it’s the Way of Reduction. Nothing need be discarded or removed. It just needs to “get transformed”–that is, to be reduced–to what it actually and essentially is. Every single experience, in Atmananda’s hands, is thus an opening to Understanding. He shows us how, really, to take any garden-variety experience and to understand it as, and only as, Pure Consciousness. 

Mind you, I am not pleading against the Negative Way; I’m only suggesting that Wei Wu Wei was seduced by it to the point of taking it to be exclusive. This is a blindspot–and a mistake–for sadhakas have various spiritual temperaments and also because each sadhaka may need to move improvisationally, indeed Daoistically, as needed. I have found my practice so much enriched by “all of the above,” even if my heart belongs only to my dear Sri Ramana.

The Process Of Obscuration Of Nondual Consciousness “I Am” According to Sri Ramana

We do well to listen to Michael James again as he discusses a seminal passage from Sri Ramana Bhagavan’s Nan Yar? (“Who am I?”). The following is an excerpt from from Michael James’ Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana (2012; second edition)

*

Any world that we may perceive is nothing but a series of mental images or thoughts that we form in our mind by our power of imagination. Since the world is therefore nothing but our own thoughts, and since the root of all our thoughts is our primary thought ‘I am this body’, the appearance of the world, which includes the appearance of the body that we mistake to be ourself, obscures our true knowledge of ourself – our non-dual consciousness of our own essential being, ‘I am’. This process of obscuration is explained clearly by Sri Ramana in the fourth paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?:

That which is called ‘mind’ is an atiśaya śakti [an extraordinary or wonderful power] that exists in ātma-svarūpa [our essential self]. It projects all thoughts [or causes all thoughts to appear]. When [we] see [what remains] having removed [relinquished, discarded, dispelled, erased or destroyed] all [our] thoughts, [we will discover that] solitarily [separate from or independent of thoughts] there is no such thing as ‘mind’; therefore thought alone is the svarūpa [the ‘own form’ or basic nature] of [our] mind. Having removed [all our] thoughts, [we will discover that] there is no such thing as ‘world’ [existing separately or independently] as other [than our thoughts]. In sleep there are no thoughts, [and consequently] there is also no world; in waking and dream there are thoughts, [and consequently] there is also a world. Just as a spider spins out [a] thread from within itself and again draws [it back] into itself, so [our] mind projects [this or some other] world from within itself and again dissolves [it back] into itself. When [our] mind comes out from ātma-svarūpa [our essential self], the world appears. Therefore when the world appears, svarūpa [our ‘own form’ or essential self] does not appear [as it really is, that is, as the absolute and infinite non-dual consciousness of just being]; when svarūpa appears (shines) [as it really is], the world does not appear. If [we] go on investigating the nature of [our] mind, ‘tāṉ’ alone will finally appear as [the one underlying reality that we now mistake to be our] mind. That which is [here] called ‘tāṉ’ [a Tamil reflexive pronoun meaning ‘oneself’ or ‘ourself’] is only ātma-svarūpa [our own essential self]. [Our] mind stands only by always following [conforming or attaching itself to] a gross object [a physical body]; solitarily it does not stand. [Our] mind alone is spoken of as sūkṣma śarīra [our ‘subtle body’, that is, the subtle form or seed of all the imaginary physical bodies that our mind creates and mistakes to be itself] and as jīva [our ‘soul’ or individual self].

The world that we imagine we perceive outside ourself is in fact nothing but our own thoughts, a series of mental images that our mind projects from within itself, and experiences within itself. It is therefore a creation and projection of our own mind, just like the world that we experience in a dream.

Michael James On Sri Ramana’s Injunction To Constantly Remember Our Self

The following (below the “*”) is an excerpt from Michael James’ marvelous Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana (2012; second edition)

*

Though we are infinite and absolute being, we do not know ourself as such because we ignore our essential being and imagine ourself to be a finite body. So habituated have we become to ignoring our own being that even in sleep, when we cease imagining ourself to be a body, and therefore cease knowing any other thing, we appear to be ignorant of the real nature of our essential being, ‘I am’.

However, though we appear to be ignorant of our real nature in all our three states of consciousness, in truth our essential being always knows itself clearly as the infinite, absolute and non-dual consciousness ‘I am’. Our essential being never ignores or is ignorant of our real nature. That which is ignorant of our real nature is only our mind, and therefore we appear to be ignorant of our real nature only because we imagine ourself to be our mind.

Since our self-ignorance is therefore not real but only imaginary, in order to put an end to it all we need do is cultivate the habit of remembering or being attentive to our own essential being, ‘I am’. As Sri Ramana says in the eleventh paragraph of Nāṉ Yār?:

[…] If one clings firmly to uninterrupted svarūpa-smaraṇa [remembrance of one’s own essential nature or real self, ‘I am’] until one attains svarūpa [that is, until one attains true knowledge of one’s own essential nature], that alone [will be] sufficient. […]

In this one sentence, Sri Ramana encapsulates the empirical method of ātma-vicāra or self-investigation, which is the only means by which we can attain true self-knowledge – true experiential knowledge of our own real nature. Since we appear not to know the true nature of our essential being, our own real self, only because of our long-established habit of ignoring it, we can know it only by cultivating the opposite habit of constantly remembering or being attentive to it.

In practice we may initially be unable to remember our being-consciousness ‘I am’ uninterruptedly, but by remembering it repeatedly and frequently, we can gradually cultivate the habit of remembering it even while we are engaged in other activities. Whatever we may be doing or thinking, we are, and therefore we can remember our ‘being’ even while we seem to be ‘doing’. As we become more accustomed to remembering our being, we will find that we remember it more frequently and easily, in spite of any amount of distracting external influences.

As our self-remembrance thus becomes more firmly established, our clarity of self-consciousness will gradually increase, until finally we are able to experience and know our essential being with full and perfect clarity. When we once experience ourself as we really are, our delusion of self-ignorance will be destroyed, and thus we will discover that we are nothing but our own real and essential being, which always knows itself with perfect and ever-unfading clarity.

Epistemic Doubt Pertaining To The Waking And Dream States

Arguments, like those from Michael James’ excellent Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana (2012; second edition), about the three states (of waking, dream, and deep sleep) help us to come to epistemic doubt concerning waking and dream. How so?

There is no independent epistemic standard we can apply to determine whether the waking state, the dream state, or both are real. Only bias and custom assert without argument that the waking state is real. But when every argument for its reality is assessed, it can be concluded that the same, or similar, arguments can be put forward in the dream state.

But then three objections at least can readily be raised. The first, quite obviously, is that the experience of the waking subject receiving this testimony is occurring while the waking subject is awake and not when he is dreaming. So, the testimony’s veracity is no different from that of the subject’s hearing birdsong right now or tasting oranges right now. All three are reducible to direct experience (to perception which is already bound up with conceptualization), and that direct experience is happening right now.

Again, it’s said of the waking state that the body and world have independent existences, and these can be confirmed by eyewitness testimony: someone can watch “Andrew” as “Andrew” sleeps and see that here is his body situated in this independently existing world. While this argument may sound convincing, deeper inquiry reveals its essential faults: namely, that the only way such evidence can be admitted to a subject (the existence of whose body and world are in question) occurs when that subject perceives the evidence of the other within the waking state itself.

Second, an identical case can be proffered for a dream subject in the dream state. A dream character could witness the dream body of a dream subject (in dream 1) while the dream subject is asleep in another, inner dream (dream 2). Upon waking up from dream 2 and coming into dream 1, the dream subject could be told by the witness that the latter was, all the while, observing his dream physical body in the outer dream physical world (dream 1). What’s the essential difference between the testimonies? How can we tell the difference–and who is this we anyway?

Third, the waking subject, taking himself to be in the “real state,” would object to the identical case given above just as the dream subject could readily object to the case given to the waking subject from that waking subject’s witness. Is the matter, without begging the question, not undecidable?

To be sure, plenty of arguments could be offered than just these, and all would, together and on their own, serve to demonstrate that there is an irresolvable epistemic indeterminacy or undecidability with respect to the claims of reality (sat) made about, and in, the waking and dream states.

If the above were taken seriously, then there would only be two options: nihilism or nonduality. The former is precipitous, the latter our saving grace. For the nondual teaching states that there is a no-state state of deep sleep where Pure Consciousness without experience is. “I am” or “I am that I am” is all one and all one. “I am” is reality.

It’s from this vantage point (which is really no vantage point at all) that the sage can see and say that the dream and waking states are unreal or illusory (asat) for the sage has gnosis or metanoetical understanding, which allows him to determine that both the waking and dream states are undeniably unreal.

The epistemic uncertainty that the pilgrim falls into owing to grasping what’s been written above is nothing but a necessary moment on the path of knowledge-realization. This doubt opens into wonderment, naturally driving the inquiry to its natural conclusion. That natural conclusion is nothing but Aham Brahmasmi.

Consciousness Is My Essential Nature

Interpreting Sri Ramana while also relying upon his deep study and experience, Michael James writes,

If the essential nature of something is consciousness, it must always be conscious, because nothing can ever be separated from its essential nature. Because consciousness is the essential nature of our consciousness ‘I am,’ it is conscious at all times and in all states. Similarly, because the essential nature of our consciousness ‘I am’ is also being or existence, it exists at all times and in all states.

Happiness and the Art of Being: An Introduction to the Philosophy and Practice of the Spiritual Teachings of Bhagavan Sri Ramana, p. 28

In brief, I am cit, I am sat, and cit = sat.

Exposition

1. The only thing we know for certain is that I am conscious. I can doubt the contents of experience: I may see water on the highway, only to realize that it was an illusion. In fact, I can be wrong about the content of any experience: any perception, any thought, any sensation, and so on.

But what I can’t possibly doubt, let alone get wrong, is that I am conscious. Or even just: “I am.”

If I try to conceive of a time or place where I am not conscious, that conceiving is itself an experience in consciousness. If I fear not being conscious, that fear is arising in consciousness. If I believe that I am unconscious in deep sleep (a belief that is incorrect), then that belief is occurring in consciousness. However hard I try, I can’t leave consciousness behind. After all, the one trying to leave consciousness behind is swimming in consciousness.

2. And consciousness can only be conscious: “If the essential nature of something is consciousness, it must always be conscious, because nothing can ever be separated from its essential nature.” It’s not possible for consciousness to come out of unconsciousness or to pass into consciousness. Consciousness–itself, as itself–is conscious.

3. Since consciousness is only ever conscious, what is other than consciousness cannot enter into consciousness. A physical body, being made (apparently) of matter, cannot be ‘something’ that consciousness can be conscious of.

4. Given that this is the case and given that I am conscious, it follows that I cannot be the body. If we continue to grant that the body is material, then there is simply no way for that which is material to make contact with, to touch, to interact with consciousness. But remember: the only thing I know for certain is that I am conscious(ness). So, I also know for certain that I am not the body.

5. The mind, it can be demonstrated, is nothing apart from thought and feeling (and feeling, Atmananda nicely points out, is just “intensive thought”). By reduction, we can then say: the mind is nothing apart from thought. Of course, mind arising as thought arises only intermittently. This can be easily verified during any meditation. But consciousness, being my essential nature, simply remains as consciousness whether there is thought or no thought (i.e., mind or no mind). As a result, I cannot be the mind. An additional argument comes from analyzing the three states: waking, dreaming, and deep sleep. In deep sleep, consciousness is while there is no mind. Therefore, consciousness–I–is not mind.

6. What the above does is to allow us to “purify” consciousness so that, set apart from body and mind, it can stand simply as “I am.”

I am. This is the Truth.