A Forgetfulness Deeper Than Forgetfulness

In the only book written during his lifetime, Self-Knowledge and Self-Realization, Nisargadatta puts it to us directly:

One who leads his life without ever wondering about who or what he is accepts the traditional genealogical history as his own and follows the customary religious and other [now very secular–AT] activities according to tradition. He leads his life with the firm conviction that the world was there prior to his existence, and that it is real; because of this conviction he behaves as he does, gathering possessions and treasures for himself, even knowing that at the time of death he will never see them again. Knowing that none of this will even be remembered after death, still his greed and avarice operate unabated until death.

Bad fortune can turn into good fortune as the former can be an act of divine grace. To keep failing and failing at this or that is, perchance, the beginning of a recognition that all worldly activities, insofar as they are participated in with tunnel vision, are in vain. They can go on without you.

In secular modernity, at this point one unwittingly and, at that, too facilely falls into nihilism. Such too is folly and myopia.

The firm conviction in the realness of the world severed, henceforth the gaze must be turned inward and deepward. The light must be turned within.

Firm conviction in worldliness (and in nihilism) must be supplanted by humble openness and then too humble openness by a sinewy, earnest inquiry. “Who am I?” “What is real?”

These questions: to be held fast to.

They are, in the final analysis, the only metaphysical questions worth asking. They come first and last. Posed by the mind, they finally extinguish the mind in the flames of What Truly Is.

“Stop identifying with what you are not” and “Be what you truly are” is the advice given to all spiritual aspirants. What more is there to say?

The End Of Questioning

A satsang on February 23, 1981 begins powerfully:

[Sri Nisargadatta] Maharaj: If you have really understood the core of the matter no questions can arise. Questions arise only to an entity. The question is usually–“What can I do?” Where the “I” itself is not, who will want to know anything? (Prior to Consciousness: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, pp. 110-11)

Every time a question arises it must arise to and for ‘someone.’ This ‘someone’ is the one who wants to know. Thus philosophy is born.

But all philosophy, most especially contemplative philosophy, must also come to an end, and it comes to an end just when the core of the matter is so deeply understood that no question could possibly arise. It has sunk in that deeply. Put differently, meditation has deconstructed any notion of self such that there is no self there to ask the question in the first place.

To and for the nameless Absolute, no question can arise. Even for one abiding, one step lower, in pure I Am-ness or samadhi (meant in the Zen sense: concentrated unity), there can be no questions.

Understanding the core matter is not deep trust in some other; it is deep trust in Itself. For this reason, no question can arise (a) either because the pathless path is clear to the fading self abiding in I Am-ness or (b) because the illusory sense of self has been completely extinguished in the all-pervasive flames of the Absolute.

Contemplative philosophy, insofar as it is a pointer at the nameless Absolute, passes away–nobly so–just when the Unborn Absolute is absolutely clear. Accordingly, contemplative philosophy merges with the One-All where there are no questions, no answers, no words, no time, no space, no manifestation, no experience, no experiencer, no knowing, no knower, no desire, no desirer. Thus Nisargadatta: “Where the ‘I’ itself is not, who will want to know anything?”

‘Whatever You Witness Will Not Remain With You’

Nisargadatta, an Indian teaching master, tells students during satsang: “Whatever you witness will not remain with you” (Prior to Consciousness: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, p. 56). This is at once simple and profound. Like a sharp knife.

Any sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste you witness will not remain with you. Therefore, it is not you. Therefore, discard it.

What are you?

Any thought or emotion you witness will not remain with you. Therefore, it is not you. Therefore, discard it.

What are you?

Anything witnessed by witnessing awareness is “out in front.” Who is back behind it all? Who contemplates witnessing awareness? Find that out.

If you are neither something physical nor something mental, then what are you?

Nisargadatta’s statement yields a koan: “Whatever you witness will not remain with you.” So, what remains?

Neo-Advaita Vs. Rinzai Zen: The Paradox Of Effort

In a 2010 Buddha at the Gas Pump interview with Timothy Conway, Rick Archer and Timothy discuss, starting at 1:31:30, the errors in Neo-Advaita. To summarize almost verbatim:

–There is no need to meditate.

–There are no degrees of perfection on the path.

–All “you” need “to do” is to realize that “you” are That and “you” are done (quotes indicating Neo-Advaita’s rejection of the personal).

They go on to shine a critical light on the social and political dimensions:

–It’s a power game in which the one espousing Neo-Advaita uses oneupmanship to make the other feel inferior. If John says, “I have a headache but I’m fine,” his Neo-Advaita interlocutor will swiftly say “What is the source of that thought? Who really has the headache?” This stunt, which in the right context is a genuine question in the spirit of self-inquiry, only enhances the sense of separation.

–This power game, briefly described in the last point, “forces” (Timothy Conway’s word) the relationship into a teacher/discipline frame. “I’m the sage and you’re not.”

–Concerning this power game, Rick Archer observes that it’s a “cop-out” in the sense that any unwholesome behavior, thoughts, or emotions are written off because the alleged realizer has already realized It.

I’m sure there are other penetrating and wholesome critiques of Neo-Advaita, but the above suffices for my purposes to point to what, in connection with the great Indian teacher Nisargadatta, Timothy Conway calls “the paradox of effort.” It is effort, the need for meditation, and the value of cultivation that I wish to bring out here.

Zen, much to its credit, is superb at pithily illuminating the paradox of effort to us. In one famous story about Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan, we learn about a contest the point of which is to determine who will be a certain abbot’s successor. One monk who was favored wrote the following poem:

Our body is the bodhi tree,

And our mind a mirror bright.

Carefully we wipe them hour by hour,

And let no dust alight.

To this, Huineng replies with his own poem:

There is no bodhi tree,

Nor stand of a mirror bright.

Since all is void [emptiness or sunyata],

Where can the dust alight?

The former urges us to clarify the mind, bringing it to the unified state of samadhi. The latter seems to imply that the latter is not necessary. If this were a game of oneupmanship, then it would seem as if the latter is right, the former wrong.

But is that so?

In actuality, they’re both right. A practitioner needs to meditate with a view to polishing the mind and there was never anything to polish in the first place. Great efforts need to be made–with “earnestness” as Nisargadatta often said–and Big Mind was always only the one acting in the first place. Mental vexations should be removed and the One Reality is ever pure, ever clear. Meditation is what one does and meditation is only ever what one is.

The paradox of effort only resolves itself when the ignorance is completely seen through or–to put it differently–when divine grace reveals itself. Until then, best to keep humbly, openly, lovingly polishing and wiping, polishing and wiping–with greater and greater care and subtlety…

God And Emptiness

We have only two basic questions when it comes to merging with what is ultimately real. The first is: “Who am I?” The second is: “What is?” or “What is ultimately real?”

One kind of spiritual seeker prefers “Who?” to “What?”; the other “What?” to “Who?” Both questions, being necessary, terminate in the same placeless place.

Consider first calling the ultimate “God” or “the divine.” What the divine brings to the more artistic seeker are the affective, energetic, and vitalistic dimensions of the Whole. Those included to “interiority” and “subjectivity” incline their speech toward “God,” “the divine,” “the True Self,” “Absolute Subjectivity,” “Boundless Love,” and so on.

Now the other route. Those asking the “What?” question are using the objective to push beyond the objective. These seekers speak of “It,” “This,” “That,” “Such.” They also say, “Reality,” “the Source,” the One,” “Emptiness,” “Formlessness,” “Boundlessness,” “Openness” as well as “The Uncaused, Unconditioned, Unmanifest, Unborn,” and so on.

Where the objective points to what is beyond the world, the subjective points to what is beyond the little mind, the person, or the ego-self. Where the objective path tends to attract those of a jnani sort, the subjective path draws closely to itself bhakti, or devotional, seekers.

In the end, of course, we need both the light of direct seeing (jnani) and the love of boundless, creative energy (bhakti). We need Buddhism’s emptiness and Christianity’s love of all so that personal consciousness, now a vessel for the Source/God, can be imbued fully with affect, energy, and gnosis.