Tuesday, March 10, 2009

life's run-on sentence

The great Indian philosopher Bhartrhari, author of the complex and difficult Vakyapadiya, thought of the universe as a run-on sentence.  Reality unfolds and enfolds, pulsates and rambles forward and back, making itself known but always extending further into the unknown.  But this is another story and many more run-on sentences ahead of where we are now.  My teacher held a comparable view, preferring contentment with the unfinished, the sort that brings perfect imperfection, a joy that might include every possible feeling and thought and never bothers with what we don't experience.  This way, he said, we could enjoy the gift of embodied life for what it is offering more than any final goal that would somehow provide an end.  Why would anyone be interested in an end that always seems like it has just begun?  I know I started the sammelana with this idea but there's plenty to it.  It's going to take a few entries but, with luck, we'll have plenty of time.  So. Here. We. Go.

Yoga traditions are deeply rooted in experimental and experiential truths.  There's a distinction between experiments and experiences that invites our attention.  We'll need to get to that distinction but there's a third category too, which we'll also explore more carefully: revelation.  Revelation is usually a claim about there being something more that we can access which somehow comes to us rather than from us.  The source of revelation, at least in the western monotheisms, is God or in other traditions the gods (you pick) or it can even be in the nature of the universe itself--- as we might say so for the Veda.  The Veda is "without human origin" (apaurusheya), which just as well means that it is without any beginning at all and so eternally present.  The medium for revelation is sometimes prophets or sages and even we ourselves might provide both source and medium but still: revelation isn't like ordinary understanding nor does it come by any usual means.  We don't think it up; it thinks us.  In this way, revelation is an outlier category; it's there to tell us that there is a there and that we need to know it so that what's most important can be known at all.  Part of the principle of revelation is that something is missing and that revelation provides this crucial missing link.

How do we know things?  How do we convey and create the means by which we attest to our certainties and admit uncertainties?  In Rajanaka Tantra, as in Kashmir Shaivism, we can always say we know that we know, that experience verifies itself (as well as the revelation, as far as the Shaivites are concerned).  There is a subject who as an agent that can act and know.  Lather. Rinse.  Repeat.  We know when to stop and we do the stopping.  The action is recursive rather than a vicious cycle: it ends with our choosing.  It's not like we are still in the shower wondering what to do next.

But the yoga traditions ask more of us than that ---or do they?  Well, it will depend upon whom we ask.  But it's fair to say that all the yoga traditionalists want us to consider how we can be sure and how we can share, extend, and offer to each other the depth of our human potential and possibilities.  What we can all experience is what we all want; how we need to go about achieving that which we share most deeply and commonly is up for discussion.  But importantly, we as individuals are not alone in this world nor in this shared project.  Never.  We can't make our way through the world without each other anymore than we can claim that our individual experience is unique.  There is no such thing as a one-of-a-kind experience, at least in the sense that such an experience is incomparable.  After all, experience by definition compares.

Unique means one-of-a-kind and though we sometimes use it to mean special or extraordinary, it's better to be more precise.  Something that is one-of-a-kind can't be compared in any way since it is, after all, not like anything else!  So being "very unique" is an even sillier thing to say than just unique since if something were one-of-a-kind than we could not even experience it.  How could we?  What would be our basis for comparison?  The most we could claim or assert is that there exists a something-not-an-experience-that-is-ineffable, beyond-experience.
This important idea of sui generis in the absolute or ultimate sense (and the Indian philosophers just love the idea of "ultimate") is critical, especially to certain traditions of theism because it insures that God is like nothing else, no matter how it is then explained that God made the world, cares for it, is invested in it.  Same thing for "enlightenment."  It's gotta be there if there is something for us to get.  Uniqueness preserves otherness so that nothing more can be said, known, or doubted.  Ineffability, anirvacaniya is the idea that nothing more can be said.  We can assert uniqueness but we can't argue with it ('cause argument require comparison).  We can have faith in such a uniqueness, be that a God or some sort of state that cannot be compared in any way to others (what sort of state would that be?) and we can even claim that we will know (insert whatever word you want here) "It" when we get it.  But curiously that's all we can do.

Patanjali's Purusha (spirit, person, et.al.) or Atman (self) is just such a state or potency since it cannot be an experience.  If Purusha were an experience it could be achieved, reached from a non-enlightened position, we would not have it and then have it, and so the eternal would be a result of causality.  Na, nah, nah, naaah.  Can't do that.  Such a process compromises ultimacy's ultimacy.  The Yogasutra is perfectly clear that all changeable and comparative experience is nothing like the unchangeable and so incomparable eternality of the Spirit.  Yoga, for Patanjali, is a kind of preparation for that possibility of transcendence-beyond-comparison and must be rooted in the idea that we'll somehow know it when we get it.  Don't confuse this Purusha or 
Atman state with Patanjali's last anga of samadhi (equanimity will do for now as a translation) because to reach, attain, achieve or even sustain or in anyway obtain to samadhi would suggest a transformation from and any change violates Patanjali's principle that Spirit/Self is exempt from change by definition.   The Yogasutra is written, at least in part, to tell us that there is such a state as Atman and that we don't know it and that we can.  But we will start out by having to take Patanjali at his word.  And let's not forget too that he's telling us this because he wants us to know that the Buddhist claim that there is no such Self is, well, wrong.   Ol'Patanjali's been there, done that Self and he wants us to know it's nothin', not one thing like any of those mortal, conditional, and so changeable states we call experience.

Comparably speaking, the great non-dualist philosopher Shankara, the principal of Advaita Vedanta, says in no uncertain terms that knowledge (jnana) is categorically unlike action (karma), that no actions can cause or in any way bring about knowledge, and so such knowledge can only be acquired through an equally inviolate, utterly unique source, the revelation, the shabda of the Veda and, for that matter, only through the the so-called knowledge sections (jnana-khanda), which is indisputable revelation, pure unadulterated Truth come through sages.  (How's dem'apples for run-on sentences?  Add Good Will Hunting inflection.)  At some point the guru utters the great statement (mahavakya) into the receptive student's ear and voila, the big kaboom, in a single stroke: revelation confers knowledge.  You got it.  We begin here with what we might call a pure assertion because it can't be refuted, only somehow verified--- Veda is by definition revealed truth of the ultimate and unique variety-- and our job is to rise to the occasion of getting it.  Shankara doesn't tell us we need to have faith, belief, or gather up our intention for knowledge because none of these things can make knowledge appear to us.  Rather he tells us that there is a process for our acquiring this point of departure for knowledge that has somehow always been present and comes only from Vedic revelation.  Enlightenment is a revelation based on revelation.  (I refer here only to the Shankara who authors the Brahmasutrabhasya and less than a dozen other works.  Legend attributes hundreds of works to Shankara but that is another discussion, much well worn in the annals of scholarship.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing like consistency in a philosopher who prizes it above all other intellectual values.)

There's much to be said about revelation, enlightenment, and the uniqueness claim in the works of Tantric philosophers since their views are more complex.  At least this is so because the Tantras claim to be yet another revelation, one that somehow sublates even the Veda, perhaps because it is a more secret or a more technologically advanced claim.  Ideas differ about this but the point is that it's revelation and so unlike other kinds of insight gleaned from or through or somehow in the company of experience.  Tantrics prefer a both-and-strategy, meaning that the majority of the classic Kashmir Shaivites will say that revelation creates access to an otherwise inaccessible level of truth experience (verified from other, lesser levels and within the realms of experience as such), that Oneness Consciousness is not comparable to others inasmuch as it's without limitations or conditions, and yet we must cultivate, experiment, and evolve to this transcendent level that is unlike our usual conditions.  Somehow the unconditional category exists within and in a relationship to conditional experiences: we can get there from here because there and here are the same reality.

In other words, the oneness that revelation proclaims, asserts to be our true and ultimate state is accessed at least initially from our less-than-complete state because perfection is concealed, contained, somehow fully present for the recognizing even from within this apparently incomplete condition of awareness ---so long as we have revelation.  The Kashmir Shaivite's non-dualism means that they will insist that our usual states and the one transcendent realization are not different in essence but only once we achieve this unique accomplishment.  And, importantly, revelation is a crucial piece of that process: we receive what we seek but not without the revelation that must find us.  We're still left to wonder how something like the state of oneness recognition is by definition nothing like what we can access without it and yet is nothing but what we are currently experiencing, albeit without knowing we do.  Neo, did you take your red pill this morning?

So what's the big deal about a revelation that posits a one-of-a-kind attainment?  First, it isolates because, well, you either have it or you don't and there is no way anyone who doesn't have it can even imagine what such a person is feeling, thinking, being.  Patanjali is wise to call his transcendence kaivalya, which means isolation in the sense of uniqueness.  His Purusha is not like anything else.  Shankara is content to say that the state (which he says is not a state at all) he purports to be ultimate is verified by the Veda, which also is the source of its revelation, since others have already reached it.  Unity is self-verifying because it is self-validating; nothing in the realm of our ephemeral experiences can be compared to this supreme knowledge.  Darn mystical, if you ask me.  And not much help with understanding what we would do next.  I mean, get it and then?  For some this sort of mysticism works as an inspiration as well as an aspiration that tells us reality is more than we could ever account for ---even as it must somehow enter our accounts.  The mystical goal can create a powerful incentive to live even if the attainment is by definition not to be confused with such incentive, always beyond the horizon.  Surely this supreme is nothing like this mundane, suffering ebb and flow of desires.  That's  the gist of the yogins who posit the unique enlightenment.

The classic Kashmir Shaivite vision is, in a sense, even more mystical since it purports to create in us a state of awareness, the attainment of Shiva Consciousness that the realized yogin carries back into the world without the slightest alteration.  Abhinvava and his followers are relentless in their assertion that the enlightened being is in a state that never subsides, alters, grows, or changes even for the better because there is "none higher" (anuttara) or, it seems, without the slightest difficulty with respect to re-entering the ordinary world of change, desire, life, and death.  Immune, invulnerable, and exempt, such a siddha carries on in the world but to what end?  In their view the realized yogin who is "beyond the pairs of opposites" is perfect and in the most important ways no longer part of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Abhinavagupta even explains that when such yogins grow old and dotty their inner state remains immaculate, perfectly perfect.  (I won't stop to make that citation but refer you to Poised for Grace, Anusara Books, 2009).

We can say this for sure about Abhinavagupta that puts him in league with both the classical yoga of Patanajali and Shankara Advaita Vedanta: all of them claim an attainment, call it "enlightenment" even if such a state would suggest at least three entire different concepts of enlightenment--- that is precisely commensurate and consistent with their respective views of revelation.  This means that the power of the revelation, which conveys or invites an opening to truth that is unlike any other, is in some sense identical with the attainment of that truth, the enlightenment.  To wit, revelation equals enlightenment at least insofar as this means that the source in the sense of the font or the locus of truth is unique and so is the goal.  You can't have two unique things; that's even more untenable than just one.

As Appa explained the Rajanaka Tantra he made clear that one-of-a-kind-revelation raised a host of issues that are only solved if you are willing to begin with a kind of faith that there is a mystical experience at the end of the process and that whatever-is-defined-as "enlightenment" confers special powers on the person who achieves it, meaning that it's self-verifying.  You have to be able to say, "The sages got it" and then "I got it" and that's that.  What happens after this depends on who you ask but suffice it to say there are as many ideas about that as there are versions of enlightenment.  Abhinavagupta and the other Kashmir Shaivites give us a kind of fluent-in-the-world but utterly impervious, even aloof from its concerns sorta' siddha who moves graciously, even compassionately in any and every context.  But the key point can never be less than until-you-achieve-realization you aren't really siddha-fluent in the world.

So what about these issues?  Well, let's begin with this: in every usual case in which we say something happened only once or that there is something unique, we mean that such things are false.  As Appa put it, if something can't happen twice then we know it didn't happen once.  But those who claim the uniqueness that is revelation and enlightenment (ironic that's two things, no?) insist such one-of-a-kind thing(s) do happen more than once (sages of yore got it, we can get it) and, in fact, that our potential enlightenment though it's nothing like our ordinary experience must be nothing other than the enlightenment all other sages attained.  This too must be self-verifying since the rest-of-us-non-enlightens don't yet know it yet.  But in the way we usually think we know things, we want to be able to verify together rather than in our isolation.  How would we know (experience, realize, you pick) we're not just deluded or suffering from too beautiful a mind?

The real culprit in claims about revelation being a qualitatively different source of knowledge from our usual empirical sources, flawed as they may be, is that their purpose in yoga traditions is to lay claim to the idea of an enlightenment.  One can wish away the difference among the claimants as a feature of our unenlightened state, that is, say that there could only be a dispute about what constitutes "real" enlightenment before we are enlightened; simply put, enlightenment makes all differences evaporate into so much duality.  But this isn't really what happens in the texts.  There we find the yoga philosophers arguing for their own versions of enlightenment and not the least bit inhibited to explain that others' versions are, well, wrong or incomplete or preliminary or somehow flawed in yet another way.  Again, the culprit is the uniqueness of attainment, which can only be self-verified in one's isolation with all those other folks who are similarly isolated: it's like you have to join the Real Enlightenment Club to know what it is you really got.

In Rajanaka there is no final enlightenment because there is no uniqueness.  The Rajanaka see the expanding universe as always creating more but also understand that the idea of a singular state, a uniqueness really does nothing more than hand us back duality...uhh, of the unenlightened sort.  In other words, we have to say not-enlightened/enlightened as if these were before and after or that the enlightened state somehow solves all conflicts, challenges, inconsistencies, whatever.  Ahh, the magic bullet and the Sourcer's Stone all in one!

But if there is no goal, no finality, no end, as the Rajanaka say, then what is there for us yogins? Well, there is always more: that is the definition of Shri.  Perhaps what we seek isn't oneness at all but rather the paradoxical possibility that the One that is the universe is never without it's own duality (advaya) and so an invitation to comparison.  How such a notion might involve a concept of revelation placed in the context of experimentation and experience, we'll take that up again in a few days.  For now, let's just enjoy the ride.  And another run-on or is that incomplete sentence?