Form or formlessness?
Before we go on to investigate perspectives other than that of imagination or belief in a personal god, having hopefully established its validity and recognized the reality of the human need of such an option, let’s explore what may actually happen when this kind of devotion becomes intense. In such a state of concentration on a single object, what happens to the mind? Short of finding out through constant practice, you will probably have to try to imagine this, - if the mind no longer skips from one thought to another, but remains fixed on one image, what happens to the sense of self?
At this point I’d like to refer to the story of Sri Ramakrishna. Sri Ramakrishna came from a simple priestly village family. In the latter part of the nineteenth century he came to the outskirts of Calcutta, as it was then known, to assist his uncle who had been appointed as priest to a new Kali temple. Once there, tending and decorating the image, he became obsessed with the question of whether the image in the temple was real or not. Being relatively uneducated, he kept asking this question with such simple intensity that people would sometimes find him in tears, crying for his ‘mother’.
Eventually, one day in the temple he was in such a state of anguish that he snatched the sword of Kali that hung there on the wall, determined to put an end to his pain, - but at that moment he fell to the floor, unconscious of anything except the all-enveloping presence of mother Kali. From that time on, she was, he said, his constant companion, guiding him, comforting him, sometimes dancing beside him in the form of a little girl, telling him which flowers to pick for her worship. Of course she was visible to no-one else, but for Ramakrishna, she was, he declared, more real than anything else.
He had, you might say, a sublime, divine relationship with god as his mother and companion at a level where the power of his intense concentration had surpassed the apparent reality of mundane existence. You and I can probably only imagine such a state, but that’s a start!
At this point it would seem some sense of self still remained in Ramakrishna, namely as the son or servant of the goddess, enjoying her beauty, companionship and comfort.
Now some time later a wandering monk called Totapuri, who had spent forty years to attain the ultimate, formless reality, came to the temple at Dakshineshwar, and saw Ramakrishna sitting on some steps. Intuitively thinking that he looked a likely candidate, Totapuri asked him if he’d like to learn ‘the knowledge of Brahman’ or self-realization, to which Ramakrishna replied that he’d have to ask his mother first. So off he ran to the temple, where Kali said yes indeed and that it was exactly for this reason that she had brought the monk there.
(Please note here that ‘Brahman’ or ‘Brahma’, pronounced ‘Brum-ma’ refers to the supreme formless reality, and should not be confused with ‘Brâhma’, pronounced ‘Braama’, the god of creation in the Hindu trinity).
So Ramakrishna began meditating under the instructions of Totapuri, but every time he tried to concentrate, the image of Kali took over his consciousness and he could go no further. Hearing this, Totapuri became quite agitated and pressed the point of a piece of broken glass into Ramakrishna’s forehead saying, “Feel this point, - keep your concentration there!” This time, as Ramakrishna said, when the image of Kali appeared, he summoned up all his determination, and using his discrimination as a metaphorical sword, cut the image in two. Immediately he lost body consciousness and his awareness soared beyond all name and form or any duality at all, - a state in which no sense of individual self remained. His body remained motionless for three days, after which Totapuri, in great amazement at the unmistakable signs that Ramakrishna, in two days, had reached the state of enlightenment that had taken him forty years, coaxed the consciousness back into his body, and they embraced as two knowers of Brahman.
The sequel to this story is relevant. According to Totapuri, Brahman, the supreme self and formless reality, alone was real. Everything else was a kind of illusion, or Maya, being forever changing and transient, like movies on a screen, and gods and goddesses no more than childish superstitions. However, being a wandering monk, he always kept a sacred fire burning where he camped outside the temple. One day someone came and lit their pipe from his fire, whereupon he got angry. Ramakrishna, who was there at the time laughed at this and pointed out that if Totapuri knew for sure that Brahman alone was the only reality, how come he got angry over the fire?
Subsequent to this incident, Totapuri caught a bad dose of dysentery. To begin with he could meditate his consciousness out of his body, but soon the pain began to interfere with this. Exasperated, he reasoned that, knowing beyond a doubt that the body was not real; he would drown it in the River Ganges which flowed past the temple. Well, he walked into the river, and walked, and walked, - but at no time did the water come above his knees. Halfway across, he turned round to be ‘hit’ by a light streaming from the temple, and the consciousness of mother Kali overwhelmed him. Thus he realised that when it comes to life in this worldly realm, - as long as we have any trace of individuality, as long as we are here in a body as a part of creation, - we ultimately have no power over it; nature or the divine will determine our life and death.
Swami Vivekananda, the British educated, great disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, who was perhaps the first to introduce the wisdom of India, - the unity of religious paths and the divinity of the human spirit - to the west, had a similar experience. Choosing to meditate in an old temple of the divine mother that had been largely destroyed by the Moghuls in a previous time, he was overcome with a spirit of heroism and cried to her, “If I had been here at that time, I would never have let them do this to your temple!’. To his surprise, he heard this reply as clear as a bell, “Do you protect me, or do I protect you? Don’t you think that if I wanted I could build a thousand such temples in a moment?”
Unfortunately this is obviously not a story which figures in the reckoning of modern-day Hindu nationalists!
Ramakrishna would often say that the difference between the joy of knowing god in a personal form and dissolving one’s self in the formless reality is like the difference between tasting sugar and being sugar, - not a lot. For the rest of his life, he would frequently enter a state of abstraction at the slightest stimulus, alternating between being the servant or child of god, and being completely absorbed in identity with the absolute.
Above all, the story of Ramakrishna and Totapuri demonstrates the synthesis of dualism and non-dualism. Although the ultimate and all-abiding Unity undoubtedly has to be non-dual and devoid of separation, the fact remains that as long as there remains a sense of 'this and that'' and the consciousness of being in a body, even non-duality, 'Supreme Self' or the 'Absolute' are but concepts that belong solely to the realm of duality. Even those who reject any idea of a personal form of god still seek a way to go from the imagination of 'this' to 'That', but in the final analysis, none have the power to will that transcendence except through surrender of the will itself.
We can work it out
So now for an exercise in intellectual gymnastics!
If being of perceptible form, that is, anything we can perceive, know, think of or imagine, however fine, defines creation, it follows that either it exists eternally, or that it is ‘created’ out of formlessness, - that existence, as we know it, is created out of non-existence. For something to be created from nothing defies logic. It belongs to the realm of magic, - some kind of illusion that something exists when in fact it does not, - and yet, creation being defined as the sum total of everything created, what else can the creator be, assuming there is one, except ‘uncreated’? Now, can we say that the uncreated ‘exists’ in some way or not? We may be able to conceive of something and nothing existing simultaneously, but what of one without the other?
Some say that both are eternal and are actually the same, inseparably identified with each other, like milk and its whiteness or blueness in the sky, - two, and yet one. Again, a sculpture carved out of rock is nothing but rock, even though now we see it as something else. Ornaments made of gold are always gold; waves appearing individually are nothing but water. Water itself is inseparable from ‘wetness’. Whether of individualized form or formless, the real nature of these things remains the same.
But what about us? Are we a material or mental form, or do we exist in formlessness? Does our very existence depend on form, or does the existence of form depend on us? Or are we both or neither? Oh dear, - what indeed am I?
From this perspective, we may consider the idea of god as equated with the concept of self, - the original self within each of us, hence the term ‘self-realization’.
“Arjuna, I am the Self seated in the heart of all beings; so I am the beginning and middle, and also the end of all beings”
Relying only on the evidence of our senses to determine what exists, how can we be sure of the existence of anything other than our immediate environment? We may think we ‘know’ from previous experience or memory, or believing what others tell us, but in the absence of direct perception, where is the proof that anything really exists beyond that of which we are immediately aware at any particular moment?
Who is to say that as different objects enter our field of consciousness via our senses and mind they are not being created anew at that very same instant?
Can any two people see anything in exactly the same way, unless looking through the same pair of eyes? Physically, every point of consciousness and therefore its perception is separate and individual, not to mention mentally! Following this line of reasoning, things can only be said to exist when bestowed with reality by our own consciousness of them, and it is at this point that creation really occurs!
Thus it may be that creation is not something that happened at some distant time in the past, but is happening continuously each and every moment.
This leads us to the conclusion that there are as many universes, or creations, as there are individual centres of consciousness or selves. My universe is not the same as yours, - though they appear to contain the same elements, our perception of them is inevitably different and unique. But what of the self within, - the awareness we all call I? Could that be one and the same?
Traditionally we tend to refer to our physical bodies and the world beyond as external, and our ‘mind-stuff’, thoughts and feelings as internal, but as these are also objects of our awareness, they are all in fact external to the self that perceives them.
We feel our bodies, we feel our emotions, we think our thoughts, all interwoven with each other, yet we say our body, our emotions, and our thoughts, but whose are they? What else is there?
So how about consciousness itself? Consciousness is our proof that anything exists. It is the light in front of which everything must pass to be acknowledged as existing. Yet still we say my consciousness.
Consciousness doesn’t appear to have any form. It cannot be seen, yet it would seem to be the essential prerequisite for the existence of anything else. But does it exist independently of that which it illumines? Maybe, maybe not, and maybe each defines the other. If we could but see everything just as it is, there would be no problem for us. It is our judgement of things solely in relation to parts of the picture that we habitually identify with that destroys the suchness of existence and causes us problems.
To tackle this problem we may consider what in India is known as Jnana yoga (pronounced ‘gyana’), - the yoga of knowledge. This path of perspectives follows the simple question “Who am I?” as far as it can go. In practice it requires the deepest concentration and investigation of what we really believe our self to be. The truth of each stage has to be contemplated with such intensity that it is seen and understood to be an incontrovertible fact, as undeniable as knowing that fire burns.
And briefly it goes like this: firstly we have to ask, - are we this body? If we lose a limb, is our sense of self diminished? Does a blind person have less sense of self than those who can see? I don’t think so.
Secondly, am I my emotions? Which particular wave in an ocean of waves that come and go? Am I a victim of circumstance, or changeable at will? Either way, feelings will rise for a time then fade away. Which one am I?
Thirdly, am I this mind? This endless parade of thoughts that passes by, or that we jump upon and ride for a time, like grabbing and clinging on to a horse in full gallop, - following our reason, our fears, adventures and dreams?
If, having contemplated thus, we are unable to identify with anything external to consciousness that we can call our real self, what then are we?
We all have a name, a label, but a label denoting what? We instinctively feel we are a single entity, and yet only appear to exist in terms of the multiple objects of our awareness, including our bodies, feelings, thoughts and opinions, none of which represent a permanent state and yet which we not only claim to be ours, but comfortably claim to be our very self! Not being any of these, again, what are we?
When our moods and thought processes begin as we wake up every morning, are they the same in every detail as the morning before? Of course not, - and yet we are so sure we are one and the same person as we pick up the pieces of our story day by day! The greatest relief and refreshment available to us is in deep sleep in the absence of memory, dreams and consciousness of time, in other words, when we exist the least!
With a stretch of the imagination, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the person you woke up as being today in this body, seeing the world through this mind and body, may be quite a different one to the one you were yesterday, if you entertain the notion that the whole bundle of personality and identity may remain dormant until brought to life by consciousness. How are we to know the difference, any more than a light bulb can trace the origin of its flowing energy? Then what of life and death?
Is this another crazy proposition, perhaps the result of an over-active imagination? I suspect not. In fact it may be nearer the truth than you or I have yet imagined! From this perspective we are no more important having consciousness flow through us than anyone or anything else. That consciousness which we are is one and flowing equally through all, and the less we are concerned with ‘our’ particular manifestation of it, the less diluted it becomes and the freer we are.
If only you will remain resting in consciousness, seeing yourself as distinct from the body, then even now you will become happy, peaceful and free from bonds.
The Ashtavakra Gita
Following these lines of investigation, it becomes impossible to identify our self as of an object of conscious awareness. We can only conclude that our true essence is consciousness itself, - some principle which illumines the myriad forms of individual identity defined and nurtured by the senses and the objects of their perception, whilst itself remaining perfectly free, having no particular form or identity of its own.
Such appears to be the mechanism of our existence. As long as there is something to be perceived, a self exists but cannot be found. The subject of all can never be the object of its own perception.
Oh to find somewhere else to look
Than a mind which changes faces every day,
Or perhaps to find nowhere, nor look.
The sages who have found themselves
Are nothing, because I am more,
But it is not my wish to be so.
Oh Lord, give me peace and tranquillity
Where you are alone,
So much more worth having!
Within and without you
Inasmuch as the mechanics of our individual existence do not allow for the recognition of anything that cannot be perceived by our senses or mind, we have to conclude that the self simply does not exist in the absence of objects. It is emptiness, devoid of any characteristics at all.
The observer and his observation, as well as the world observed, appear and disappear together. Beyond it all, there is void. This void is one for all.”
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
So what is this void, this emptiness? Jnana yoga sums itself up in the words “Neti, neti”, - “not this, not this,” - and thus only can we explore the concept of nothingness, - by ridding ourselves of any concept of what we think we are at all.
O Raghava, adopt a comprehensive view, characterised by the abandonment of all objects of contemplation, live in your innate Self, liberated even while alive (jivan-mukta), and thus play your part in the world.
Always “not this, not this” to both the formless and the formed. Only the Absolute exists transcending difference and non-difference.
The philosophy of ‘nihilism’ or nothingness, more often than not, carries with it connotations of despair, negativity and defeat. It is thought to suggest that all our struggle and experience of life is for naught. That in the end there is a blank, - that we simply cease to be, like a candle flame blown out. It is regarded as the very antithesis of faith and hope and is taken to infer that there is no absolute value in existing at all.
Such is the common notion of emptiness. It has zero value, - no purpose at all, and is the opposite of life. We only regard that which has form as having any significance. So try throwing nothing away! Your body would become the size of a pin-head; the universe would contract and cease to exist as such, - and neither would any longer have anywhere to exist! Existence itself would cease to be, - without emptiness. So, is emptiness really so unimportant?
Above all, emptiness, or nothing, is the only alternative to identifying with thoughts and projections ad infinitum. The only choice we have to end the ceaseless chatter of the mind and the endless experience of sensation, - physical, mental and emotional, where we scurry on forever like a mouse on a treadmill, - is to get off!
If, as in eastern philosophies in which the see-saw of actions and reactions, cause and effect, is believed to result in sufficient momentum for birth after birth, you begin to feel tired of no end in sight, the problem becomes not how to live forever, but how indeed to die! This self-extinction from which we, like every form of life, run like rabbits, may in fact be the one thing in life that is the most difficult to achieve!
There is no front or back, no left or right, nor up nor down, in emptiness. There is no central point. There are no boundaries. There is no thought. There certainly are no worries, and no pain. There’s no first or second, beginning, middle or end, - no time or distance; no dimension. There is no light or dark, no colour, life or death. It isn’t big or small. Indeed, we are all fully qualified to define emptiness in terms of what it is not! There is no universe, no god, no you or me. It isn’t there, - but it may be here if I am not!
And nothing has nothing to do with our fear of it!
The Buddhist practice of Vipassana is designed to increase the level of concentrated awareness of sensations to the point where everything is directly experienced to be composed of vibrations occurring at phenomenal speed, including the apparent sense of self that exists only in tandem with its objects, - being and not-being, something and nothing, - oscillating so fast that form and self appear to be continuous. And where there is no other sense of self, there is no longer a self to seek or find.
Now you see it, now you don’t. The end of another story!
There is no sense of purpose in my doing anything. Things happen as they happen -- not because I make them happen, but it is because I am that they happen. In reality nothing ever happens. When the mind is restless, it makes Shiva dance, like the restless waters of the lake make the moon dance. It is all appearance, due to wrong ideas.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
As we go through the day, hopping from moment to moment, thought to thought, - what are we hopping over? Emptiness of course! Thought itself represents and defines creation and a sense of self; initiated, it seems, by some mysterious energy.
I think the outside world will be as we see it, and that itself will be according to that which sees. A positive attitude imbued with love will only see the brightest present and the brightest future for the world and every being, and knowing the end of the game, being faced with brutality and pain, will only feel the more compassion for both the victim and the persecutor that they should be bound so tightly to an imagined self, the one unwillingly, the other with will.
To one who is shod with leather the earth is as good as covered with leather. Even so to the mind which is full (i.e. undivided) the world overflows with nectar.
How can there be purity when there is flavour, colour, smell, shape or sound? How can there be purity when there is thought? How can there be purity when there is even an inkling of an individual self?
Purity is by definition taintless, total emptiness, and when there is purity, emptiness, within, what else can be seen, if seen at all, but purity without? The creation outside begins with a thought, a feeling, a heart and mind, - a self that plays the game called ‘life’ as a body that is born, grows and dies no less indeed than a flower does, begging to be admired for the beauty of its expression, before fading, only to bloom again in another form. All is pure.
And every moment knowing the moment that is no moment at all. Purity in motion, you might say.
In this world, great souls are but an open window to the emptiness within. Just sitting near that window is to breathe the air of peace, and love. Acceptance of all, untouched by all, there remains nothing to be desired.
To be or not to be?
Conditioned by our thoughts
to live a little story, -
who are we?
In this context, all words are just a distraction, - an entertainment for the brain. To investigate their truth and see what happens is the only test of their validity. To see what is, beyond imagination, may take lifetimes of dedication and concentration. But then, who knows the moment when the leaf will fall from the tree? And in the meantime, if we’re not in a hurry, as long as an ‘I” is here to project the story of creation, we have all of eternity in which to play this game!
However, as the Buddha says, life is suffering. Every moment we are investing our hopes, dreams and aspirations in a play we all know has to end. Even in the short term, nothing remains the same from moment to moment. It may be fun, but all we have is a hunger for entertainment that goes on and on, and like the downside of any addiction, we also have to experience fear, disappointment, loneliness and desperation, - not to mention disease, old age and death.
The Buddha and all great souls have tried to tell us that it is possible to end this suffering by following in their footsteps.
Through many a birth I wandered in samsara (worldly existence), seeking but not finding the builder of this house. Sorrowful it is to be born again and again.
O house-builder! You are seen. You shall build no house again. All your rafters are broken. Your ridgepole is shattered. My mind has attained the unconditioned. Achieved is the end of craving.
- from the Dhammapada
How was it possible, you may ask, for the Buddha, having extinguished his sense of self, to yet remain in the world and give his teachings?
Sri Ramakrishna explained this in terms of residual karma. Karma is the force that propels us ever onward to more experience of life. It approximates to Newton’s law that every action must be followed by an equal and opposite reaction, and ‘as you sow, so do you reap’.
From the first moment of waking consciousness we continuously judge each momentary thought and event in terms of whether it is good or bad for us. This value judgement simultaneously determines the degree to which we feel happiness or pain.
The self identified with individual characteristics, needs, and wants, - the hungry self, - inevitably acts to attain these ends. As such it has a sense of identity, purpose and intent. Dare we call this the ego? It follows that every action thus performed is in fact consolidating the notion that such an entity exists and is real. Thus we continually create the world in relationship to this self-image, and are bound to enjoy or suffer the consequences accordingly.
To explain the mechanism of karma, Sri Ramakrishna used the metaphor of a potter’s wheel as seen in the villages of India. It consists of a large circular slab of stone balanced on a wooden pivot just above the ground. Towards the edge is a hole into which the potter inserts a stick and ‘winds up’ the wheel to such a speed that it can continue revolving for a long time, during which the clay can be thrown and pots moulded into shape. In this illustration, the stick represents the ego, the individual self. The force applied in winding the wheel with the stick is karma, the action performed with individual purpose and intent and which propels the wheel of life. Removing the stick represents enlightenment, the realization of non-self, but the wheel of karma that created the body and its world will continue to revolve until the force that propels it is spent.
When the wheel of mind ceases to turn
All things come to an end.
There is nothing inherently substantial
And all things are utterly pure.
I think, therefore I am
Without thought, therefore, - I am not!
Nothing or emptiness is only one thing! There is only one kind of nothing; it is unique. It is the only singularity there is, having no divisions or dimensions, no multiplicity at all. In fact it is neither one nor many.
So it looks like this: the something and nothing that make up our world, the infinite variety of things and the emptiness in which they float, - the invisible self and the objects of its perception, - are mutually dependent on each other for their existence. Neither exists without the other like water and wetness.
It seems reasonable to suggest that ‘one’ cannot be seen to exist until there are ‘two’ and thus a relationship exists, and that creation is therefore a process of ‘two by two’. The ‘two’ items, for our purposes are the concepts of zero and one, - a simple code well known to the digitally-minded! They appear to come into being simultaneously and through their combined existence create a third identity and so on, capable of infinite combinations. This primal duality sets the scene for the interplay of opposites that make up the conditions in which we live. Without light and dark, there can be no picture.
Knowing the relativity of all,
The ultimate truth is always seen;
Dismissing the idea of beginning, middle and end
The flow is seen as Emptiness.
Could it be however, that something and nothing exist by virtue of something else, or nothing else as the case may be? All the great teachers allude to the existence of an unconditioned state. They experience a super-conscious state beyond all trace of duality or individual self, and come back to tell us it is there. Some have stumbled upon it, and others have followed paths laid down by those before them. Some have said there is no difference between their real self and god, - and some have died for saying so!
Beyond this Unmanifest, there is yet another eternal Unmanifest, that supremely Divine Substance, which does not perish, even though all beings perish.
The sun shines equally on all, and in its light all have their life and being, but with their backs to it as it were, seeing only their shadows that move as they move. Our eyes, looking only forward, see only half the world; behind us, the emptiness is infinite. What are ‘we’ but an ephemeral shoreline between the two? Whether anything appears in its light or not is of no consequence to the sun. Whether anything appears in emptiness or not neither qualifies nor limits it in any way. The pictures on the screen are momentary and have no real substance other than light.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj explains it this way: the “I am”, which constitutes consciousness and exists only in relation to its objects is like a hole in the roof, as it were, whereby the light of awareness enters and illuminates all. When sought by means of the negation of its multifarious attributes, that “I am” is thus found to be nothing indeed but an empty aperture through which the light of infinite awareness shines.
For those of us who enjoy the intellectual puzzle of philosophy, we then have this problem: - how, given the existence of an unconditioned state, does the conditioned state arise? How can duality emerge from unity, and how can something originate from nothing? Even the slightest awareness of ‘oneness’ would be sufficient to get the ball rolling, but from where can it arise?
My teacher used to say that in the process of realizing our naked self, as it were, there comes a point at which the world and anything definable simply disappears. It is something that is beyond rationalization from this side, concerning as it does the very genesis of thought itself.
Vashistha likens the origination of the finite within the infinite to pure coincidence, as when a coconut falls just as a bird lands on the tree without any causal connection between the two events.
Nagarjuna argues that the whole chain of cause and effect, whereby the one thing leads to the other, loses its validity in either the absence or existence of an original or ‘uncaused’ cause.
How, in heaven’s name then, do we appear to exist?
The answer is – I don’t know, and perhaps nobody does! But if, after dreaming of a way to wake up, we happen to do so, it matters not whether we dreamt at all!
“Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen? – Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows –or perhaps he does not know”.
From the Song of Creation in the Rig Veda