Pantheism, agnosticism/atheism — and Advaita Vedanta

How would you define your sense of pantheism?

Brad Neil, proponent of nonduality

I have devised this classification for reference: Modes of pantheism

(Divine pantheism; Natural pantheism; Spiritual pantheism; scientific pantheism)

Modes of pantheism

Within the range of categories given, I find myself somewhat ambivalent:

  • I most closely align with natural I believe the physical universe is all that there is, and that there are eternal forces and energies at play. I do not believe in the supernatural.
  • Scientific pantheism is least applicable to me because I really don’t have a problem being labeled an atheist. In my opinion, atheism and pantheism are almost (but not quite) two sides of a coin.
  • But when I’m feeling in my best of moods, I think I fall under spiritual or divine When my mood is high, I sometimes experience an awe and a gratitude that gives me a deeper feeling of connection to existence.

More generally, self-labels that I do not find objectionable include pantheist, nondualist, agnostic, atheist, and skeptic. However, I have none of these words tattooed on my forehead, and I reserve the right to change my thinking at any time. Continue reading

How could we merge absurdist and Buddhist philosophies?

M. Provisionally we could put side by side ‘absurd’ (or illogical) and ‘unprovable’, even if they are not synonymous; and the main tenets of all religions are such. They are not ‘rational’. On the other hand, neither science, ‘common sense’, or rationality are the ‘end all’. There are many things that escape explanation with the current state of our knowledge and understanding.

Paradox is a term related, one way or another, to the above. Just consider the following:

i) “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress”. Niels Bohr (famous physicist)

ii) Is there anything more absurd to ordinary understanding of the world and us than the following (taken from my blog): “That truth, put into words, is paradoxical: you are all (as Consciousness) and ‘you’ (as perceived individual) are nothing, or a phantom; you are the final witness, but ‘you’ are not a witness; the world is illusory (as appearance), but in essence is reality itself. That revelatory, transcendental experience is non-transferable, not provable to another.”

GL. If by absurdism you mean acknowledging that there is no absolute truth, then zen buddhism when asked what is enlightenment, answers “6 pounds of flax”, which is, I believe, trying to point out that absolute truth is impossible.

M. You probably mean ‘impossible to demonstrate, or to know, with the ordinary mind’, but ask a zen buddhist if it (absolute reality or truth) is impossible to grasp, to grok.

GL. I think the point of the flax koan is that you can’t know satori with certainty.

M. Is it not rather that the experience cannot be explained – or transmitted – with words, being ineffable? Such is a transcendental experience, where there is no individual per se present.

GL. Isn’t “ineffable” the same as saying we can’t know with certainty?

M. No, it means ‘inexpressible’, the experience being overwhelming (rather than being too sacred – another meaning).

GL. If you can’t describe it, then it isn’t knowable.

If it is purely a matter of experience, then there is no way for me to know you are experiencing something the same way I am. Color is ineffable. You experience red and green the way you do, and I experience it the way I do. And unless we have an objective test for color blindness, there is no way to know if you see what I see. Some people see color when they hear sound. And as long as that experience is ineffable, there is no way to know if we see color the same way. Only when we establish some objective explanation and some objective testing can we know with certainty if we are experiencing similar things.

M. You refer to what are called qualia, but I am not sure how far you want to go (can nothing be known? In what sense?) Most empiricists/scientists tend to disregard this question or deny that it presents any problem for their physicalist stance. In non-duality, which is what interests me, there are not, cannot be, any objective tests referable to either external or internal experiences of what generally is understood as reality (the world and oneself) except, perhaps, in one’s facial expression and/or demeanor. That agrees with what you say about qualia but, aside from non-duality (or as a preliminary to it), it doesn’t mean that there cannot be agreement, concurrence, in the realm of thought, sensations, and feelings. Two people reading the same book or page – if they are on the same wave length (let’s say interest in non-duality, or in a particular modality of art, like Baroque or modern) – will have similar thoughts and feelings. Language is for communication – even about the understanding of non-duality (like zen) – but certain experiences cannot be communicated, such as particular intuitions or epiphanies, regardless of what we understand as qualia, though related to it.

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (4/4)

who am I 4We started this enquiry into identity by employing a simple piece of logic: you cannot be what you observe. From this point of view, the things we normally take ourselves to be, starting with the body, were systematically discounted because they turn out to be objects of perception, as covered in the first three parts of this series. Despite this reasoning, the tendency to believe our identity with the amalgam of body, senses and mind tends to remains very powerful: we continue to believe that we are these individuals bound by skin, with an experiential history and an instinctive, habitual mindset through which ‘I’ filter the world.

Identity with the body is evidenced by the vast cosmetic surgery industry today. People feel better with fewer wrinkles, larger breasts, drug-induced libido, less fat, etc. That’s the extreme end, but coming closer to the average person, we think of ourselves as too tall, too short, too hot or cold. If the body is in pain, we say: I am in pain. We really do mean ‘I’ when we say: I am hot, cold, ugly, beautiful, too short, too fat, too old. By employing the incontrovertible logic of ‘I cannot be what I can observe’, it does not take long for us to realise that the body is an object of perception: ‘I’ can experience my body using my five senses. We then ask: Who is observing the body? Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (3/4)

Who I am 3When we analysed the world of objects in the waking state we came to the understanding that our experience of the variety of objects is due to the variety of corresponding mental impressions (covered in Part 2 of this series). If there isn’t a mental impression ‘this is a pot’ then, despite fully-functioning senses, the pot will be as good as non-existent. The perception of ‘is-ness’ is the single, unchanging common thread in all our worldly experiences. This perception is given the name, ‘consciousness’.

When we analysed our dream state experience we realised that the same observation holds true for the dream universe as for the universe we encounter when awake. This experience gives an added dimension to our understanding of consciousness: not only is it the one, unchanging basis of the varied, changing objects (gross and subtle), but now we see that it is also continuous through the changing states of experience. The ‘I’ that is awake is the same ‘I’ that dreamt: ‘I am awake, I had a dream’. Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (2/4)

who am I 2In the first part of this enquiry we saw how, by discriminating between the seer and what’s seen, we arrive at the understanding that ‘I’, the seer, am not the body, not the sense powers, not the thinking faculty, not even a combination of all of them. They are all objects of my perception and I am the perceiving subject. And I, the subject, cannot be what I can perceive as an object. In this logical way we arrived, step-by-step, at a final ‘knower’, which is given the name ‘pure consciousness’. This pure consciousness is what remains after thoughts, (which are the subtlest objects of perception), have been dismissed as the ultimate ‘I’. We know there’s something there but it is still a bit hazy. We now need to test the robustness of our new working conclusion that this ‘pure consciousness’ is the ‘I’ we are searching for and sharpen the understanding.

For this we need to understand the nature of consciousness and its relationship, if any, with ‘I’. A question might arise at this point: If ‘I’ is the pure consciousness that remains in the absence of vtti-s (thoughts), and no cognition is possible without vtti-s, then how can I ever know what I am? How do we go further with this enquiry if there are no thoughts? Continue reading

Logical enquiry into ‘Who I am’ (1/4)

maskAt some time or other in every person’s life the question of identity arises in some form or other. For most people, the answer seems pretty obvious: I am a unique human being, a man/woman, in this body, with these parents, these siblings, and these ideas. I am defined by my wealth, my social class, my education, my tastes, my network of contacts, my race. I am shaped by my biology, my physiology, my psychology. Anything beyond this is ‘philosophy’, and one thing I am not is a philosopher!

If, however, people knew the life-changing value in finding the true answer to the question, ‘Who am I?’ they might be prepared to dig a bit deeper for that truth. Vedānta gives us a very good reason to pursue the question. It says that because we do not know the truth of who we are, we take ourselves to be an amalgam of the body and mind (thus pretty much confirming the majority view). The inevitable consequence of identifying with something that is as changeable, limited and vulnerable as the body and mind, is that ‘I’ is also taken to be changeable, limited and vulnerable. And it consumes a whole life of sweat and slog in trying to build up adequate self-protection. Continue reading

Discovering oneself: Part 2/2

creationSo how do we know how Brahman is? The teacher says that each object of experience has 5 aspects: asti, bhāti, priyam, rūpam, nāma. Asti = ‘is’. You know the meaning of the word ‘cat’, but not pay attention to the meaning of the word ‘is’, which means ‘isness’, which means ‘existence’. When you say ‘cat is’ you mean that the existence of the cat is. Any object of experience you can name is.

Existence is the intrinsic nature of Brahman, the Reality. In what form is Brahman? Continue reading

Discovering oneself: Part 1/2

Samsāra, this life of limitations, this life of transmigration, is because of the lack of discriminative knowledge of what Self is and what it is not. That ignorance is caused by the covering power of māyā, which covers internally and externally: internally it covers the discrimination between the seer and the seen, and externally it covers discrimination between the Reality and the creation.

Internally, delusion causes error such as: ‘I am insecure, dependent, unhappy, limited, etc.’ These wrong notions are caused by lack of discriminative knowledge at the individual level. Externally it takes the form: ‘this universe is the source of happiness, it is responsible for my unhappiness, I am dependent on the universe, the universe will give me security, etc.’ (The universe includes friends, relatives, property etc).

One’s notion about the self (internal) is wrong and notion about the universe (external) is also wrong. Every human being makes this common error. These erroneous notions are caused by lack of discriminative knowledge. We do not have discrimination regarding what is absolutely true and what is ‘as though’ true in the universe, hence we have a wrong notion about the universe. Continue reading

Īśvara (the Lord), prayer and worship 1/2

http://earthstation1.simplenet.comOne of the more difficult ideas for some Western seekers to accept is God, the Lord. The usual picture is of a highly judgmental white-bearded figure, sitting in heaven, dispensing punishments and rewards. God, in this picture, is all-controlling, all-powerful and thus I am small and insignificant and a mere pawn in his game. This sort of idea of the Lord is also prevalent in the East. For the godless, prayer and worship obviously have no place, and for the theists, prayer and worship are ultimately to secure a place in heaven or worldly comforts and pleasures. In one of her talks to her London students, Swāminī Ātmaprakāśānanda put all of this into perspective so that anyone with an open mind could get a wider, more liberating vision of these important and vital matters. This part deconstructs the concept of Lord…

What is this world? The world is nothing but a world of objects – different objects, perceptible through different senses. You can reduce the whole universe into five types of objects, perceptible through the five different senses. Every object becomes as good as non-existent if it is not perceived by the appropriate sense organ.

Despite its size, the universe would be as good as non-existent if you didn’t perceive it. The universe has the status of being existent only when it is perceived by you. The Gītā says: “They say the sense powers are superior (to sense objects); the mind is superior to the sense organs; the intellect is superior to the mind. Whereas the one who is superior to the intellect is He (ātmā).” (BhG 3.42) Continue reading

Can you accept that the world is mithyā? – 2/2

It is extremely difficult to accept that what we see, what we experience, what we take to be real is not quite real. Even Swami Dayananda wrote of his utter shock on realising that the solid universe is made up of nothing but words and meanings. I personally remember the first time I saw his demonstration of close-up magic when he held up a clay tea cup in the meeting hall, one hot afternoon in his Gurukulam in Anaikatti. “What am I holding?” he asked and then answered for us: “You say cup, I say clay. Tell me which bit of this is cup? My fingers touch clay, the weight of what you call cup is the weight of clay. The feel of the cup is the feel of clay. The colour of the cup is the colour of clay. Where is the cup? Is it on the clay? If it is I can remove it. Maybe it is in the clay?” In this way, as we watched, the thing called ‘cup’ vanished in front of our very eyes. ‘Cup’ is nothing but the name given to a particular form of clay for the sake of distinguishing it from other things made of clay and all other things as well.

Now extend this to all objects that can be traced back to a common cause: even science supports this view. Then at each stage we just have names: Shirt is the name of a form of material, material is the name of yarn, yarn of cotton, cotton of fibres, fibres of atoms, atoms of sub-atomic particles, etc till we arrive at a single cause. (Vedānta śāstram goes one step further than science in stepping from the perceptible to the non-perceptible world.) Continue reading