No single form can provide a solid ground.

Advaita Post, Volume 10 No 16

Everywhere: the ordinary, extraordinary

Text: East and West – tradition, modernity and openness (Part 2)  

In: InZicht – Paths of radical self-inquiry 11 No 3 (September 2009), pg. 4-9

No single form can provide a solid ground

Douwe: In the West a long term process of secularization, de-churchification, removal of traditional boundaries and demythologization has occurred. In the minds of many, the great stories of the Christian religion, socialism, capitalism and other isms have been pierced and are no longer valid. Even the belief in science as a provider of absolute truth (scientism) and in philosophy as a provider of the same has virtually disappeared. This has led many to nihilism, cynicism and flat pragmatism, but also to openness for what remains when all beliefs disappear. If some of that openness is actually experienced, the truth of  non-duality which the Upanishadic (Vedanta) teachers learned and taught, can be recognized. That is happening now in the Netherlands, although a complete and full recognition remains a rarity.

InZicht: Are there any dangers in the uncritical adoption of doctrines or practices from the East?

Of course, there are opportunities and dangers everywhere. The “uncritical adoption” means that there isn’t an understanding of what it’s all about. When you take things in this way and make them your own, then you become stuck to the things. Particularly in the absence of a grasp of the basics, people can easily take things on in order to have a ground to stand upon, a life to live, a meaningfulness to overcome the futility. So people connect themselves to Eastern groups. So too, people repeat phrases from the advaita tradition. When it remains just that, then it’s essentially not any different from a traditional religious situation, even if there is an awareness that it’s pleasant or blissful.

Sooner or later the critical consciousness will come into play, through experiencing the boundaries of the belief and behavior system. This means that then questions are posed about the absoluteness of the limits and about what lies on the other side of the borders. This process continues until it’s clear that no single form can provide stability. When it continues in a good way, the notion arises that there is a unity in the groundless openness without content and that everything is that.

Is the terminology of the fundamental unity of things independent of the distinction between East and West?

Words have a meaning in the extensive region of other words and meanings. This verbal region is historically, socially and culturally conditioned. The words that are used to indicate something about the highest reality are taken from that space. Therefore, part of the terminology about the highest is different in different cultures. Atman and Brahman are Sanskrit words whose meaning has been consistently developed further throughout the history of India. The concept of God is constantly developed in the Jewish and Christian culture. Nevertheless, there is a level at which the culturally specific meanings are of less importance than the general human ones. When it concerns being-there, consciousness, bliss, about suffering and liberation from suffering, about limitations and the unlimited, about duality and non-duality, the expressible and the inexpressible, the stuck and the groundless, the closed and the open, there are no differences in the beliefs of people in any culture whatsoever. The lives of most people stay limited to the level of their own culture. Nevertheless the universal notions play a role within that. Consider the archetypes of Carl Gustav Jung. This also applies to the notion of the unconditioned, inexpressible, all encompassing.

How are philosophy and religion in the East and the West interwoven? Are East and West different there? Can philosophy also be a path of liberation? Or is Western philosophy too focused upon pure thought, free of individual practice or personal application?

Philosophy in the West is primarily an intellectual and rational activity. Philosophy is, to a large extent, about reflecting on life and society, whereby the philosopher is a thinker at a distance. Clarifications of familiar phenomena are given. All kinds of notions, such as those of the individual, remain intact thereby. The truth that is sought in much of Western philosophy is a cognitive or theoretical truth.  This truth is partially connected back to a living practice, in the sense that that practice is changed by it. So the change then lies on the level of human behavior.

Bringing it to the limit

In religion there is an existential relationship with something or someone greater than the human situation through which the possibility of the changes  which people are directed to can be more radical. It’s about a “good” relationship between man and God which reflects the human condition within a larger space. In mysticism, there is the notion and the desire for union with God. There can also be an openness for the groundless non-duality (advaita) that goes beyond every form and absorbs everything within it, and a realization that you and the groundless openness are essentially not different from one another. Here, and in religion, to the extent that the transcendent is present within experience in a vital way, philosophy and rational thinking can only have a limited function. That which is transcendent to the human situation, cannot be thought. However, philosophy can bring the mind to its limit, so that it can become aware of the limit, and therefore also of the space on the other side of that border. That is the intention of theological philosophy, but it mostly fills the transcendent back in again with what has been dogmatically taught (Thomas Aquinas, among others). This bringing-to-the-border is also the intention of a large amount of the ‘deconstructivist’ and ‘postmodern’ Western philosophy. But the movement continues for the most part within the specified limits of the human being. Then what remains is only an unsatisfactory agnosticism, nihilism or pragmatism.

It’s different in the East. There philosophy is traditionally one of the paths (jñânayoga) of liberation from the conditioned (samsara) human situation. In various texts of Advaita Vedanta something is said about this starting point. That is the situation of the person who no longer takes everyday life for granted and hears the highest truth from a teacher (hearing, shravana). Then he must think about it: the second phase. Ambiguities must be discussed with his teacher. This is the phase of manana: the mental thinking, considering, reasoning (deriving true statements from true premises) and the resultant understanding, philosophy. This phase will have to continue, until the maximum intellectual understanding is reached. Which is to say, until the thinking structure of the advaita approach is clear, and the logic is well constructed and can be refuted. Much of what can be found in the classic Vedanta texts concerns this phase of questions and answers on the mental plane. Then it quickly becomes clear that the intellectual understanding is not a complete  understanding and must be continued further with the help of a higher insight (the higher mind or Buddhi).  Then it’s no longer a path of indirect knowledge, but the direct understanding, “this is it”.  This witnessing activity that is focused on then, can still be called philosophy (see Plato, for example), but it is clear that this is not thinking any longer. This third phase is a more of a constant meditation (nididhyâsana) in which the nature of existence and its origin and basis become clear and in which the truth of the statements of the Vedanta teacher (teachers) becomes recognized. In that sphere a merging with the truth can arise.

So the core of Advaita Vedanta as an eastern current is not bound by the Indian culture. It’s about the universal truth of a non exclusive non-duality.  In any case, you should be able to recognize that in yourself, because you are at home in it. That ‘home’ both includes and is free from any regional conditions: East – West, home’s best.

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