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#3136 - Monday, April 14, 2008 - Editor: Gloria Lee
Nonduality Highlights -     

The Three Levels of Nondual Reality

Conventional, Psychic-Soul, and Absolute

Most humans view their situation in a conventional, non-mystical way, treating whatever happens as concretely real, and to be judged as "good" and "bad," etc. By contrast, a growing number of spiritual teachers and disciples have become boxed into a viewpoint which constrains them to see whatever happens only as "the perfect manifestation of Divine Will," or else as "nothing really happening," and such persons abandon all capacity for evaluating phenomena in any constructive or meaningful way.

Yet our situation is not so one-dimensional as these positions would hold, and an expansive, truly liberated way of talking about Reality will involve more dimensions. A three-fold model of nondual Reality I've suggested has been found by many people to be quite helpful in accounting for all levels of our experience.

This model is an elaboration of the old two-fold distinction between the "Absolute-truth" level (paramarthika-satya) and the mundane "conventional-truth" level (samvriti-satya or vyavaharika-satya) articulated by India's most illustrious ancient sages— the Buddha, Nagarjuna, Sankara, et al. In the model I suggest, another level is inserted between the "conventional" mundane level and the "Absolute" level.

Thus, we can identify the "Three Levels of Nondual Reality" as:

Level 3: the conventional level of mundane reality, entailing the "appropriate and inappropriate," "skillful and unskillful," "right and wrong," "justice and injustice";

Level 2: the psychic or "soul" level of Reality, which yields the realization or epiphany that whatever happens is "perfect," whatever occurs is the "exquisite manifestation of Divine Will for all souls eventually coming Home to God-realization"; and

Level 1: the Absolute level of Reality, wherein it is realized that whatever happens is a dream, so nothing is really happening, only GOD or Pure Infinite Awareness is truly HERE, absolutely Real as the sole Identity (prior to or beyond all souls, events, experiences).

When people don't honor together all three of these "levels" or "dimensions" of Reality as being simultaneously true (level 1 is Absolutely true, levels 2 and 3, pertaining to the multiplicity, are "relatively true"), they tend to fall into a constricted viewpoint. So, for instance, if people ignore the conventional level (level 3 in this model), they think that being discerning or critical—i.e., critiquing any form of thinking or behavior (in the field of politics, spirituality, etc.)—is "being negative" or "deluded" or "coming from the head, not the heart." (Actually, a true sage utilizes both head and heart in the context of Awareness.) Yet this is, itself, a negative judgment or a critique. It is a "position" that violates true freedom by constraining us to always only view whatever happens as "perfect" and beyond reproach, or as "nothing really happening." Again, to hold such a position is to constrain oneself to a uni-level or one-dimensional and limited view of Reality.

A more in-depth presentation of this "Three Levels of Nondual Reality" occurred in an interview several years ago in the Sun magazine, a national journal of politics, spirituality, psychology, poetry, etc. The relevant excerpt is reproduced immediately below....

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Excerpt from April 2003 Sun magazine cover-story interview with Timothy Conway, Ph.D. (c) Copyright 2003 by Timothy Conway

(The full text of this interview can be downloaded at this link and at the "Engaged Spirituality" section of this website.)


Arnie Cooper: Many people feel a tension between the more contemplative life on the one hand, and the more engaged activist life on the other.

Timothy Conway: To heal this conflict, I think it helps to see our situation on three levels—all equally true and valid.

I'll start with the most familiar level, level three, the conventional level of our ordinary experience in the world. This is a realm of opposites, of pleasure and pain. In mystical spiritual literature, you hear a lot about going beyond the opposites, beyond all duality, but let's stop at this level three and acknowledge the loss and gain, the beauty and ugliness. This is the level of right and wrong and good and evil, skillful and unskillful. It's humans doing despicable things to each other and to our ecosystems. It's also all the good and beauty and joy in the world.

Look at 9/11 and the horrific damage the terrorists caused: not just the nearly three thousand dead, but also those who were scarred for life, the economic dislocation, the massive layoffs and monetary losses. But there was also the great heroism shown by the firefighters and police officers and rescue workers and all those who donated their blood and time and energy. The events of September 11 showed both the best and worst of humanity.

This is level three: the amazing play of what is traditionally called good and evil. At this level, one must look evil in the face and see it for what it is. And one must be willing to step up with an engaged spirituality and do what needs to be done for the public good. I do not mean mere charity, but getting involved in enacting justice. There's a big difference between charity and justice. Bill Moyers said, "Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table." He wrote that in the preface to a book by another hero of mine, Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical Christian, editor of the spiritual-political journal Sojourners and cofounder of the Sojourners community of those who live and work in solidarity with the poor. In his book, Wallis says, "We need to do more than pull people out of the river before they drown; someone needs to go upstream to see who or what is throwing them in." For example, government policies that punish poor and middle-class Americans, or corrupt foreign-aid practices that destroy habitat and displace thousands or millions of people from their ancestral lands. So level three, the realm of good and evil, is where engaged spirituality shines.

Cooper: What about level two?

Conway: On this level, we realize that, whatever happens, it's all perfect. The great fourteenth-century Christian saint Juliana of Norwich was immensely troubled by the misery around her, the sinfulness of people, and the traditional idea that sinners would go to eternal hell. Then she experienced a dazzling revelation: Jesus appeared to her and, among many other lovely utterances, said to her, "All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." And this beautiful secret from God was revealed to Juliana—that all beings would somehow be brought Home. No one would have to permanently suffer in hell, for God is our deepest truth, our real condition of eternal love and bliss.

This goes back to the old, largely forgotten Christian idea of apokatastasis, or universal salvation taught by Origen and Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa: God's love is so powerful that no creature can exile itself from this Love forever. It may take eons, but at some point God will redeem all souls. Even Satan will be reconciled in God's love. The beauty of universal redemption is that, no matter what's happening on level three—the oppression, exploitation, and terrorism—it's all perfect, for this Divine Comedy has a happy ending. Moments, or periods, or even eons of suffering are ultimately "outshined" by reconciliation in God. This idea is not found just in Christianity. It is also known to mystical Sufis and Hasidic Jews, and it is openly acknowledged in the Eastern traditions. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna promises universal salvation for all beings. So, too, does the Buddha, when he says that all beings will come to nirvana, that none of the conditioned states are permanent. India's ancient Brahma Sutras say, "All beings will eventually become Brahman," or Divine Reality, "because there is only Brahman."

So, with this blissful outcome for all, there's a sense that it's all perfect—truly, an amazing Divine Comedy. Yes, there are times of terrible tragedy and tribulation, but ultimately everything turns out well. All souls—really God in disguise—use their suffering as grist for the mill to produce sublime awakening to Spirit.

Sri Ramakrishna, the great Bengali master of the nineteenth century, when asked why we suffer, replied: "To add zest to the play." In classic works of comedy, from Shakespeare to the Marx Brothers, things get darkest before the dawn. And when that dawn comes, when the comedic climax happens, all those on stage awaken to an overwhelming sense of joy and happiness. In the highest form of comedy, even the villains are converted.

So here at level two, the deep, mystical part of us realizes that all is well in a superb Divine play of manifestation. Unlike our vulnerable human aspect, which fears things are going down the drain, this deep Self knows that, in the exquisite script authored by Divine Intelligence, it's all perfect and everything happens for a reason. You can take this on faith, but mystics know it in the core of their being as the truth of every situation.

Cooper: Many people have trouble even taking it on faith. They want proof.

Conway: Well, in a way, modern physics supports this aspect of the mystical view. The basic parameters to get a physical cosmos had to be absolutely, utterly perfect—otherwise this nearly 14 billion-year-old universe just wouldn't have happened. So many astounding fine-tunings underlie this world that it's obvious to many scientists that divine intelligence and wisdom are active in the process.

What holds the cosmos together is a great mystery. Respected Princeton mathematician and physicist Elliott Lieb has worked for thirty years on the "foundational problem"—the question of why matter is stable. Why doesn't the atom just implode and then explode? Another glaring anomaly is that, at the origin of the material universe, there happened to be a tiny bit more matter than antimatter. If there had been equal amounts, which is what one would expect, then everything would have just canceled out. But there just so happened to be a few more quarks (by the tiniest hairbreadth of a hairbreadth) than anti-quarks, in just the right proportion.

And let's ponder that initial inflationary period of the physical universe: the infinitesimal Planck moment, the tiniest moment in physics, 10-43 second—a ten-millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second! In this original moment in time, a "speck of nothing," a quantum bubble of space-time, inflated out of the "vacuum" to the size of a soccer ball. Then the inflation somehow stopped and the Big Bang process took over to slowly unfold our universe through an energy radiation phase to the birth of matter, and then evolving galaxies, stars, and planets to their present proportions. Now, why did that original inflationary cosmic bubble expand to a certain point and then stop? If it hadn't gone far enough or had gone too far, in that initial Planck moment, we wouldn't have a universe today. And, in a fascinating development over the last two decades, superstring or M theory, accepted by over 90 percent of theoretical physicists, holds that our familiar, four dimensional space-time cosmos must be embedded within an eleven-dimensional hyperspace, a much subtler realm ultimately rooted in the immaterial.

In the realm of chemistry and biology, one great anomaly is water. A century ago, Lawrence Henderson of Harvard explained that water is, in many ways, a miracle substance. It has some highly unusual properties compared to other molecular compounds. And without water, you wouldn't have any complex forms of life. The famous astronomer Fred Hoyle, after being an atheist for most of his life, found remarkable and inexplicable anomalies in the chemistry of stars that caused him to declare that "a super intellect has monkeyed with [the basic laws of] physics as well as chemistry and biology."

A survey done by the journal Nature revealed that 49 percent of scientists believe in a personal God. That number surely would have jumped to 70 or 80 percent had the question allowed for belief in a transpersonal God, such as the one that Einstein held dear.

The point is this: Atheistic materialists who claim the universe is just an accident have to appeal to the almighty "laws of physics" to account for how the cosmos got to be so stable and so conducive for the emergence of complex forms of life. But when we see how many absolute miracles of fine tuning were necessary for a universe and sentient beings to manifest, it becomes a semantic quibble whether you invoke "the laws of physics" or "God," because they share the same divine powers of manifestation. Of course, the mystics would say that God actually has powers beyond the physical cosmos.

Cooper: We still haven't gotten to level one.

Conway: Well, after level two—the realization that everything is the perfect design of Intelligent Spirit—you might ask, "What could level one possibly be?"

Level one is the deepest mystical truth, namely: Nothing is happening. The world is a dream. There's only God here. It's always only been God, changeless and full. A hymn repeatedly found in the ancient Upanishads declares, "Praise to the great Divine Fullness (Purnam)," which remains perfect and changeless despite all that is happening at levels two and three. Because at level one, nothing is happening. What appears to be happening at the other levels is a dream of Consciousness. Sufi saint Hakim Sana`i declared: "You think you are something, but that something is nothing." La ilaha illah Llah. There is nothing but God.

Here again modern physics helps out, revealing that atoms are 99.99999999999% empty space. Shimmering fields of energy underlie the appearance of matter. And, as Richard Feynman and other leading physicists have declared, energy is a complete mystery. Thus, an increasing number of physicists are considering that consciousness may be the basic reality and source of all.

The finest nondual advaita scriptures of India use humor to explain this. Yoga Vasishtha, for example, playfully states, "The cosmos is like two sons born to a barren woman who did not really exist, and one day they went out and got on their horses that had never been born and traveled along a nonexistent path to an uncreated land to a town that existed only in the imagination." These advaita scriptures all affirm that the world is a dream-play of the Supreme Consciousness. Yes, a world-appearance is happening that has a relative reality to it, rich with phenomenal experiences—colors, sounds, textures, tastes, smells, bodily pains and pleasures, emotional ups and downs. Yet it's all a dream. And if you bring attentive awareness to it, and a strong urge to awaken, the dream's apparent solidity is dissolved. And that's true for the ego as well, the sense of me, my mind-body.

So here's the paradox: in Spirit—wide open, vast, spacious, infinite Being-Awareness—the No-thing manifests as "something," a world of phenomenal entities and processes. But, as the Mahayana and Zen Buddhist masters say, it's all sunyata, empty-open fullness. It's manifesting as Arnie, as Timothy, as the plants, the walls and all these beings within these walls and beyond, from the microscopic bacteria to fungi, to animals, to life on other planets. The entire play of all these souls is the One sitting where it always sits, spaceless, timeless, conjuring up a dream of multiplicity. Within the heart-mind of God appears this Cosmos-dream, manifesting on subtle levels of refined light, from the heavens all the way down to the denser, gross levels of the physical plane. Wondrous and poignant adventures are happening. God plays all the parts.

Cooper: But if, on level one, none of this is really happening, then why are we talking?

Conway: Why not? It's part of the divine play at levels two and three. You see, all these levels are simultaneously true. Nothing is happening, and everything is happening. "Wisdom says I am nothing; love says I am everything" was how one of my mentors, Nisargadatta Maharaj, put it to those of us who sat with him. The completion of the journey Home is realizing one's identity as both formlessness and form, nothing and everything, nobody and everybody. And that's where engaged spirituality spontaneously manifests. When you know that there's only God here, you're motivated to do whatever it takes—peacefully protesting, serving, educating, praying—to alleviate suffering and remedy injustice.

Cooper: But what about the realization that it's all perfect? Why do anything at all?

Conway: Ram Dass related a wonderful story about this. Coming from a good, progressive Jewish family, he was much interested in tzedek, or justice. One day he was kvetching to his guru, Neem Karoli Baba, about the suffering in God's creation, and his guru finally cut him short, saying: "Look, Ram Dass, suffering is perfect." And Ram Dass, shocked by this apparently callous statement, began to marshal his intellectual resources to argue with his guru. But Neem Karoli stopped him again and said: "And, Ram Dass, your attempt to end suffering is also perfect."

There's no airtight case for why we should pursue social or environmental justice, given the fact that everything's perfect. But, paradoxically, God prefers good over evil, even though God is also playing the villains on the world stage, from Nero to Hitler to Stalin to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said in 1996, regarding the 500,000 innocent children dead in Iraq because of U.S. sanctions, "We think the price is worth it." Yet God is also the human-rights activists attempting to educate folks like Albright, and God manifests as all progressives rising up to protest and heal injustice.


[One can] speak critically of these asura or "demonic" characters [the disguises of the one God-Self who appear to be the perpetrators of evil], but they need our compassion. Though they appear immersed in very ungodly behavior, these folks are essentially God in disguise and will eventually, by Divine Grace, all come Home to God-Realization. Speaking from the radical context of the one Spirit, I am these people. There is only one Self here. May they and all beings be healed and liberated into full realization of this one Self, this pure, clear Absolute Awareness.

Thanks to Mark Scorelle, who posted this to Wisdom-l

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