Friday, August 14, 2009

one is the loneliest number

Three Dog Night. Remember them?

Yoga, like most spiritualities and religions, makes roots in revelation. (Until recently we’d have to say that yoga has always passed the duck test of being religious--- scriptures, concepts like revelation and ultimacy, moral imperatives, experts who look like clergy or shamanists or experts of a kind, mysticism, pilgrimage, duck, bill, feathers, waddles, it’s a duck.) A revelation is usually a claim that there is something more that we can access that somehow comes to us rather than from us. The source of the revelation is sometimes God or the gods and the medium is sometimes prophets or sages, and we ourselves might also be both source and medium, but still: the revelation isn’t like ordinary experimental or experiential understanding nor does it usually come about by any intellectually cultivated means. Revelation is the outlier category; it’s there to tell us that there is a there and that we need to know it. It’s a principle of revelation that something is missing without it, that it provides the most important something we need. As we’ll see, it’s a bit different in Rajanaka and certain other traditions because revelation’s purpose is to reveal what we can and, in a certain way must learn scientifically, that is, experimentally. But it’s fair to say that this is not the more common conceptualization.

How do we know things? How do we convey and create the means by which we attest to our certainties and uncertainties? We can always say that we know that we know, that experience verifies itself. But the yoga traditions ask more of us than that ---or do they? Well, it will depend on 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. We’re not in this alone, after all. Never. We can’t make our way through the world without each other anymore than we can claim that our individual experience is unique. Whatever else might be said about revelation, in the Indian tradition such insights are mutually attainable: what revealed sources or sages get we are supposed to get too. This is interesting too because in most prophetic traditions, we don’t share the prophets powers of insight or receive comparable revelation (or even the same insight). Instead we listen and receive, the prophet is a medium unlike ourselves because he or she provides the revelation we need. So it goes.

Unique means one of a kind and though we sometimes use it to mean “special” or “extraordinary,” it’s better I think to be more precise. Something that is truly 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 even sillier than 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? This important idea of the sui generis in the absolute sense is critical to certain traditions of theism because it insures that God is like nothing else in His-Its-Her nature no matter how it is then explained that God made the world, cares for it, is invested in it. Uniqueness preserves otherness so that nothing more can be said, known, or doubted. Uniqueness is a strategy to have faith in the ineffable. That works great for some folks and you’ll never hear me pronounce on what others feel makes them happy. Alas, I’m not mystical enough to want a yoga of the ineffable. For me yoga has to be instruction about the world I’m living in, not a mystical otherness. We can assert uniqueness but we can’t argue about it (‘cause argument requires comparison). We might 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) “God” when we get it. But curiously that’s all we can do. And it may be what we really want to do. There’s nothing left for us to say about a unique God other than that these words refer only to themselves and somehow to our feelings about them. For some this is life’s mystery and a comfort. For me, another way.

Patanjali’s “experience” of Purusha (Spirit) or Atman (self) is just such a “state” or possibility since 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 state with Patanjali’s last anga of samadhi (equanimity will do for now as a translation) because to reach, attain, achieve, or in anyway obtain to samadhi would suggest a transformation from and any change violates Patanjali’s principle that Spirit is exempt from change.

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 anyway bring about knowledge, and so such knowledge can only be acquired through an equally inviolate, utterly unique source, the Veda (and only the so-called knowledge sections of the Veda or jnana-khanda), which is indisputable revelation, pure, unadulterated Truth come through sages. We begin with what we might call a pure assertion ---Veda is by definition revealed truth--- and our job as yogins is somehow to “get it.” Shankara doesn’t tell us we need to have faith in knowledge or have faith that knowledge will somehow appear. Rather he tells us there is a process for acquiring knowledge that has somehow always been present as such. Our own yoga is in this sense a revelation based on revelation. (The Shankara to which I refer is the author of the commentary on the Brahmasutra and about a dozen other works, perhaps. Legend attributes hundreds of works to Shankara but that is another discussion. There’s nothing like consistency in a philosopher who prizes it above all other intellectual values!)

There’s much to be said about revelation and the uniqueness claims in the works of Tantric philosophers since their views are more complex in the sense that most are going to opt for a both-and strategy. What I mean is, the majority of classic Kashmir Shaivites will say that the revelation that is the Tantra creates access to an otherwise inaccessible level of truth/experience, that Oneness Consciousness is not comparable to all other by definition limited states, and yet we must cultivate, experiment, and evolve to this transcendence that is unlike our usual conditions. We are born not only from this Oneness but as it and it is the sense of our separation from our eternally singular source that causes in us a failure to access that level or kind of experience. Then there’s the discussion the three malas and thirty-six tattvas and suddenly we’re headed down a very long passage of explanation. This version of non-dualism means that our usual states of this-and-that (dualism) and the one transcendent realization of the One are not different in essence but that this awaits our achievement of the unique accomplishment. Enlightenment is not only of the One but must be the same one for everyone (how could we each have different enlightenments of the One?) though these philosophers also go to some length to explain that we each achieve this state for ourselves. We’re still left to wonder how something ---the state of Oneness recognition ---is by definition nothing like what we are having now and yet is nothing but what we are having now. Did you take your blue 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 you are feeling, thinking, being. Patanjali is wise enough to call his transcendence kaivalya, which means isolation in the sense of oneness. Shankara is content to say that the state he purports to be ultimately without any qualification (nirguna) is self-verified by the Veda but not by one’s Consciousness. For Shankara argues that if Consciousness knew itself then this would require yet another Consciousness to know that one, a regressive problem, and a fault he attributes to those pesky Consciousness-Only Buddhists, the so-called Vijnanavadins. However, Shankara says that since others have already reached the Oneness realization their revelation of this as Veda proves that knowledge is a category of being without duality. Since there is nothing in the realm of our ephemeral experiences that can in any way be compared to this supreme knowledge, Shankara says we must have the Veda’s revelation to know what is unlike all that we call knowledge in the realm of subject-object experience. Veda is shruti, it is literally “heard” as the universe and yet only certain portions of the Veda provide the ultimate source of Knowledge (another capital letter to indicate Really Big Important Ultimate It). To whit, when we get it, we got it and with it there is no before or after, or even you and me. Just One. Darn mystical, if you ask me, which is why not only I use a capital “O” when discussing Oneness. For Advaitins Oneness is Really Really Important. And for some that mysticism works as an inspiration as well as an aspiration; it can create a clear sense of the goal of human existence even if that attainment always seems beyond one’s experiential horizon of the ordinary ---since surely this supreme is nothing like this mundane, suffering ebb and flow of desire. There is surprisingly little about what happens to the jnani, the Knower, after this pinnacle of awareness without subject or object is realized. Shankara is interested in getting us there and he’s got almost no re-entry strategy. For what advaita or non-dualism of this sort (N.B., can non-dualism have more than one sort? Why, yes. Now that’s interesting, no?) would look like in the world we’d have to ask a modern practitioner since Shankara himself gives us few clues.

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. Kashmir Shaivites to the last maintain that the state never relents, subsides, or varies even for the “better” since there is “none higher” (anuttara) and while it would seem one can re-enter the everyday world without the slightest difficulty, one is permanently exempt from the never winsome features of change, desire, life, and, of course, death. Better yet, no re-death ‘cause this Oneness attainment means no rebirth. In their view the realized yogin who is “beyond the pairs of opposites” is perfect and in the most important ways exempt from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The great Abhinavagupta even explains that when such yogins grow old and seemingly dotty that their inner state remains immaculate and perfectly perfect. (I will not explain this further but refer you to Abhinava’s comments on the Bhagavadgita or to my explanation in Poised for Grace, Anusara Books, 2009. Did I just plug the book? You’ll forgive me?)

But we can say this for certain about Abhinavagupta, which puts him in league with both the classical yoga of Patanjali and Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta: all of them claim an attainment ---call it “enlightenment” even if such a state would suggest at least three entirely different concepts of enlightenment--- that is precisely commensurate and consistent with their respective views of revelation. Abhinavagupta says his enlightenment is not only consistent with scripture’s revelation but is verified by experience and taught by the guru, so for him the experience of explaining Oneness from inside the dual isn’t the same problem as it is for Patanjali or Shankara for whom the experience can’t be an experience (since those change and Oneness doesn’t). Abhinava brilliantly tell us that duality is also Oneness in it’s own way, that is, when we get the One. 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 whit again, revelation equals enlightenment at least insofar as this means that the source in the sense of the font or locus of truth is unique and so is the goal. Has this been at all interesting?

In yoga traditions you can be an ontological dualist (there are two real features of existence, matter and spirit) like Patanjali or a non-dualist who claims the quality-less (nirguna) of the One is superior (Shankara) or merely renders the qualified world, well, qualified (Abhinavagupta) but in every case the source of this ultimacy is a revelation that provides what no other kind of resource can provide. For Patanjali it is the reality of Purusha itself rather than the Veda; for Shankara, clearly, only the knowledge portions (jnana-khanda) of the Veda; and for Abhinavagupta, the later, post-Vedic shruti sources, the Tantra-Agama, which are then seen as not different from the experience itself of the yogin. You aren’t getting there --- that is, to any of these theres of the One--- without revelation. Nosirreebob.

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 enlightenment depends on who you ask but suffice it to say there are as many ideas about that as there are versions of enlightenment. We’ve already labored a bit with those and unless you have a real taste for scholasticism (oo…ooo…me…I do, I do…), you’ll be spared further (or at least until I write about this again).

Abhinavagupta and other Kashmir Shaivites give us a kind of fluent-in-the-world but utterly impervious, even aloof from its concerns sort of siddha who moves graciously in any and every context. One might say that Abhinavagupta’s siddha is the human being with the ultimate hall pass; he (and I don’t think he thinks the siddha can be a she, really, but that’s another story), ‘cause the siddha is simply exempt, impervious, without concern but not oblivious to the working of the world, including its laws of karma. Reaching the unconditional confers all sorts of do-as-you-want in the conditional world, even Patanjali would agree (that is, if we think the third pada of the Yogasutra is really connected to the first two). Getting it makes you powerful, all seem to agree. Even miraculous by non-superhero standards. But the key point can never be less than until-you-achieve-this-realization you aren’t really siddha-fluent in the world. Siddhas got powers dammit and one might be more inclined to see those as the point than the enlightenment, that is, if you really read the texts carefully and think about how much yoga tradition cares about being powerful in the world we experience.

So what about these issues? Well, let’s begin with this: in every usual case in which we say something happened only once, we mean that such things are false. Oneness may be One but it’s not an unrepeatable experiment, at least as far as its proponents are concerned. As Appa put it, if something can’t happen twice then we know it didn’t happen once. But those who claim the uniqueness of revelation/enlightenment all insist such one-of-a-kind things do happen more than once and, in fact, that our potential enlightenment though it is nothing like our ordinary experience must be nothing other than the same enlightenment as the sages of yore. This too must be self-verifying since the-rest-of-us-not-enlightens don’t yet know that either. But in the way we usually think we know things, we want to be able to verify together rather than in our lonesome. No one likes a solipsist. Not even the solipsist. How would we know 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 resources, flawed as they may be, is that their purpose in yoga traditions is to claim that there is an enlightenment. Just one. Not the other guys. Ours. One can wish away the differences 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 or traditions that talk about this subject seriously. Nobody in the traditions thinks that your enlightenment is just as good as mine if they are not in perfect agreement. 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 somehow flawed. Again, the nettle in this patch of ideas is the uniqueness of attainment, which ironically is only self-validated; it’s like you have to join the Real Enlightenment Club to know what it is you really get.

In Rajanaka there is no final enlightenment, not only because these Tantrics see the expanding universe as always creating more but also because the idea of a singular or unique state of awareness really does nothing more than hand us back a duality that isn’t the one we really want. 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, or problems. Ahh, the magic bullet and the Sourcerer’s Stone all in one! Oneness seems to wish away the world that we don’t want but somehow leave us with the one we do. Were it so. Ahh.

But if there is, as the Rajanaka say, no goal, no finality, no end then what is there for us as yogins? Well, there is always more. 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 and so an invitation to comparison. Perhaps non-dualism, Oneness means that difference is real but that we are never ever no how separate ever, that we are always entangled. Funny thing, this being human. We’d like to believe we are the measure of the world but are constantly reminded that we were made by the world we are measuring. 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. It’s nearing the end of August and I’m looking back nostalgically to those summers when my daughters were still little and we rode the teacups in the amusement park till we were all sick. (It took me only once.) Thinking about non-duality is a lot like those tea-cups, doncha’ think?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

making the rakshabandha

Today is the full moon of the month of Shravana, the August full moon, which belongs to the goddess Sarasvati who is wisdom and learning, art and the gifts of the heart come to form in the embodied grace of recognition. It’s also Rakhi Day, especially important in north India as the celebration of sisters for their brothers, the bond of affection and of hope appearing in the rakhi, a bracelet tied to the wrist. There’s a sweetness and simplicity to Rakhi Day and, truth to tell, it fosters no great body of reflection in the sources of the yoga tantra. But an occasion to savor the grace of protection is always welcome. In Sanskrit, it is raksha-bandha, the bond of protection. And I will spare you here the long etymology I am so fond of explaining that I do it again and again, the one that takes you from the Sanskrit verbal root raksh- all the way to bagels and lox. Everything is connected. Sometimes the route bends in ways that can make us smile all the way down to the bottom of our being.

Of course, in the customary sense in India the connection of sisters to brothers reflects not only the bonds of immediate sibling affection but of a girl’s hope that when she leaves the natal home her brother will continue to be her advocate with her new family, he securing that privilege by being the helpful and always near maternal uncle. In youth particularly the rakhi is a sign that hope always brings with it vulnerability but that hope invites us to welcome rather than dread the unknown that lies over the horizon of our present recognition. We turn to those we can count on and remind ourselves what in life really counts. Rakhis tell a story of relationship in time, mark a place, and offer another way to find our identity. With the rakhi we say, “I have been there for you and I will be there again. I am with you here, now. And we are bound to one another, like this.” Could anything be more human?

The relationship that emerges in maternal uncles, that person who we call in Tamil “maamaa”, extends far beyond the boundaries of kinship ---for any close family friend or even helpful acquaintance might be called “uncle.” And the same is true of “aunties”--- one has so many “maamee-s”, thank goodness. That some are very dear and others less is clear only in the relationship itself but the notion is rooted in the same hope: we protect one another when we can create a boundary and know how to reach across it. What counts too is the acknowledgement ---so the bracelet---and the effort to make that connection mutually with a sign of affection, and in this month tied to the wrist.

We hear a great deal in yoga about non-attachment, about loosening the bonds to the mortal, limited, and conditioned experience of our humanity so that we might taste the immortal, unlimited, and unconditioned. But I think in Rakhi Day we have a chance to hold closer to the mid-line that joins the two and brings us closer to the gift of embodiment, to that place where these feelings and concerns can come together, where they co-mingle. For what better experience is there in our embodied, temporal lives than those occasions, conditioned as they are, when we are given the chance to remember, to reflect, and to recognize the presence of the unconditional? And how important it is that we bring those unconditional feelings of affection into the life we are really living with others, in bonds of relationship that mean to protect one another? Look out for each other. It’s not a complex message but like most of the important ones, it’s not always as easy as it appears. I’ve always loved that there was a day just for this, where we can celebrate an innocence of heart that reminds us we are bound to each other by the choices we make to do just that: look out for each other, be present for each other, and remember that everyone longs for that connection to be real, the one that goes straight to the heart. Happy Rakhi Day!