|Dr. Robert Puff|
Click here to go to the next issue
Highlights Home Page | Receive the Nonduality Highlights each day
How to submit material to the Highlights
#3523 - Monday, May 4, 2009 -
Editor: Gloria Lee
The Nonduality Highlights - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/NDhighlights
This issue is a conversation between James Corrigan and Roy Whenary, discussing how nonduality is presented by the language of the mystics in early Western traditions and how a similar technique occurs in Eastern philosophy. Who knew the meaning of Apollo is "not many"? Also James has written a brief paper on "Understanding Nonduality" that is being presented in his graduate philosophy program.
I'd like to mention, in response to Roy noting that there is no way around the
dualistic nature of language, that there is a great book by Michael A. Sells
entitled: "Mystical Languages of Unsaying" which talks about apophasis, which is
a technique used by mystics to do just that! It's the reason that mystical
writings sound they way they do. It's a very interesting read, and it uses
examples from John the Scot Eriugena, Ibn 'Arabi, Marguerite Porete, Meister
Eckhart, and Plotinus. Although these are all 'western' mystics, the same
technique is used in Taoism, Buddism, and Vedic writings.
The subject of Mystical Languages of Unsaying is an important but neglected mode of mystical discourse, apophasis. which literally means "speaking away." Sometimes translated as "negative theology," apophatic discourse embraces the impossibility of naming something that is ineffable by continually turning back upon its own propositions and names. In this close study of apophasis in Greek, Christian, and Islamic texts, Michael Sells offers a sustained, critical account of how apophatic language works, the conventions, logic, and paradoxes it employs, and the dilemmas encountered in any attempt to analyze it.
This book includes readings of the most rigorously apophatic texts of Plotinus, John the Scot Eriugena, Ibn Arabi, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart, with comparative reference to important apophatic writers in the Jewish tradition, such as Abraham Abulafia and Moses de Leon. Sells reveals essential common features in the writings of these authors, despite their wide-ranging differences in era, tradition, and theology.
By showing how apophasis works as a mode of discourse rather than as a negative theology, this work opens a rich heritage to reevaluation. Sells demonstrates that the more radical claims of apophatic writersclaims that critics have often dismissed as hyperbolic or condemned as pantheistic or nihilisticare vital to an adequate account of the mystical languages of unsaying. This work also has important implications for the relationship of classical apophasis to contemporary languages of the unsayable. Sells challenges many widely circulated characterizations of apophasis among deconstructionists as well as a number of common notions about medieval thought and gender relations in medieval mysticism. http://www.amazon.com/Mystical-Languages-Unsaying-Michael-Sells/dp/0226747875/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1241376701&sr=1-3 Ed.Note: Search Inside This Book makes available some introductory pages well worth reading.
I was just checking this book out,
which looks very interesting.
However (Roy's comment here), I wonder if any of these mystics actually wrote
consciously in this way. It is a natural way of writing, when one has arrived at
a point of seeing through the limitations of words and concepts, and I suspect
that none of the said writers were aware that someone else had named it (or was
going to name it) "apophasis". This is something that an onlooker might do but
not necessarily the mystic himself/herself, I would suggest.
with warm regards
James: Roy, as to whether
or not mystics are conscious of what they are doing, I would
find it odd if they did not. What after all, does such a union bring, if not
insight and understanding, and a clarity of awareness? Whether they had a name
for it doesn't seem like it would matter to them. They would just eat the apple
rather than worry about whether or not it was an "apple." Plotinus is one that I
know was quite clear about what he was doing. By the way, that Sells review you
quoted is misleading in one very important sense. Apophasis is a performative
way of speaking; apophantic or negative theology refers to the type of
propositional statements used in certain types of theological writings by
theologians, not by mystics. Because of the similar word stem, they are often
confused. But here is a famous quote from Plotinus that speaks to the issue, in
which he criticizes the inability of "apophantic" or negative propositional
statements to encompass unity, while he is using "apophasis" to express his
meaning: (I apologize for the length of it, but I find it directly answers your
"Since the substance which is generated [from the One] is form one could not
say that what is generated from that source is anything else and not the form
of some one thing but of everything, so that no other form is left outside it,
the One must be without form. But if it is without form it is not a substance;
for a substance must be some one particular thing, something, that is, defined
and limited; but it is impossible to apprehend the One as a particular thing:
for then it would not be the principle, but only that particular thing which you
said it was. But if all things are in that which is generated [from the One],
which of the things in it are you going to say that the One is? Since it is none
of them, it can only be said to be beyond them. But these things are beings, and
being: so it is `beyond being'. This phrase `beyond being' does not mean that it
is a particular thing for it makes no positive statement about it and it
does not say its name, but all it implies is that it is `not this'. But if this
is what the phrase does, it in no way comprehends the One: it would be absurd to
seek to comprehend that boundless nature; for anyone who wants to do this has
put himself out of the way of following at all, even the least distance, in its
traces; but just as he who wishes to see the intelligible nature will
contemplate what is beyond the perceptible if he has no mental image of the
perceptible, so he who wishes to contemplate what is beyond the intelligible
will contemplate it when he has let all the intelligible go; he will learn that
it is by means of the intelligible, but what it is like by letting the
intelligible go. But this "what it is like" must indicate that it is `not like':
for there is no `being like' in what is not a `something'. But we in our
(aporia) do not know what we ought to say, and are speaking of what cannot be
spoken, and give it a name because we want to indicate it to ourselves as best
we can. But perhaps this name `One' contains [only] a denial of multiplicity.
This is why the Pythagoreans symbolically indicated it to each other by the name
Apollo (a pollõn: not many), in the negation of the multiple. But if the One
name and reality expressed was to be taken positively it would be less clear
than if we did not give it a name at all "
I added the Greek derivation of "Apollo" above to show that for the Greeks it
meant the same thing as "Advaita", at least in some circles.
I thought I would post this presentation that I am making today at school in my Philosophy of Religion class because it originated from my exchanges with Roy and Jax. -James
Nonduality is a view of reality that encompasses both `material'
and `immaterial' aspects. In truth, within systems of
philosophical nonduality, which are the explanatory systems that
accompany the practices and rituals within various spiritual
traditions, the `material' aspect of reality, which includes the
attributes that make up the ego, is always held to be illusory in
at least some way, while the `immaterial' aspect is the real
aspect of reality. The exact reverse of how most of us normally
Within systems of nonduality there is only one Self and this is God, and there is nothing other than This (the emphasis is normal). The word "God" in the sense it is used in nondual traditions is neither a theistic nor a deistic being. As a broad generalization, God is the Mind or Consciousness that permeates and manifests the phenomenal world. Everything that is, is the spontaneous manifestation of this nondual nature, including our selves and our own actions, although our actions are subject to erroneous beliefs (error or sin) and the truth of our nature is obfuscated by those beliefs.
My presentation arose out of an invitation to speak this Fall at a conference to be held in California at the Marin County Convention Center on the increasingly prevalent isomorphism between philosophical interpretations of scientific theories of reality and philosophical nondualisms. (www.scienceofnonduality.com) I have been invited to speak, not about my understanding of the various philosophical systems of nonduality, but of my own view of nondual reality and the philosophical presentation of it in my book "An Introduction to Awareness." Mine is a heterodox view, as there are differences between the implications that I take from nondualism and those found in the philosophical traditions, but for the purpose of introducing nonduality to you, those differences may help to clarify, rather than further obscure what tends to be a difficult subject to grasp, since mine is an approach that seeks to explain, rather than explain away as error, our attempts to rationally understand reality.
Justification for Nonduality
My understanding of nondual reality is based upon the observation that the phenomenal, or material, world evidences a necessary presence, or nature, of which it is the activity, and this nature, which is not itself natural in the sense of being found within the natural phenomena as another member or part of it, is not an epistemological principle, but rather, is the active principle of the world. Thus "nature" must necessarily be other than just a conceptualization of universal laws depicting necessary or putative generalizations, but must in fact be the indivisible aspect of reality that acts. This is the disontological aspect of reality, distinguished from the ontological aspect of reality, i.e. phenomenal being. This dyadic abstraction of ontological and disontological aspects is a useful tool for developing an understanding of nondual reality that is not meant to be taken as a distinction in fact. The disontological aspect is essentially different than the supposition of a supernatural entity or principle that lies outside the world. Rather, this nature is both immanent within the phenomenal world and transcends its appearances. (It) does not exist apart from it in any way, yet is not identical with it in any way either. A metaphor that I like to use is that phenomenal being is the activity of this nature, the way running is an activity of a runner; but the activity of this nature, like the running of the runner, is not equivalent to that nature, nor to the runner. In Spinozan terms, there is natura (nature) and natura naturans (nature naturing), but not natura naturata (nature natured). The latter is illusory because it entails the imaginative superimposition of reality upon the activity of nature separate and apart from that which it is the activity of, and this is the result of an erroneous understanding of the essential operation of awareness.
An Allegorical Depiction of Nonduality
It is often helpful to use a visual or allegorical depiction when dealing with a difficult subject such as that of the nonduality of reality. First, because speaking of the `immaterial' nature of reality necessarily introduces errors that cannot be overcome unless one uses a technique designed to mitigate such structural errors as are introduced by dualistic language (since all language is unsuited for metaphysical discourse in the sense that it was created for the marketplace, according to Whitehead). One such technique used almost universally by mystics is aphophasis which means `unsaying' or `saying away'. In apophasis all statements are signs in a most indeterminate fashion, since they are used to point to that which can only be apprehended in a `flash' of insight. It must be noted that apophasis is a linguistic performance and is different in intent than "apophatic," or negative theological, statements with which it is frequently confused. Plotinus explains the problem that necessitates the use of apophasis in this famous quote from his Enneads:
"Since the substance which is generated [from the One] is form one could not say that what is generated from that source is anything else and not the form of some one thing but of everything, so that no other form is left outside it, the One must be without form. But if it is without form it is not a substance; for a substance must be some one particular thing, something, that is, defined and limited; but it is impossible to apprehend the One as a particular thing: for then it would not be the principle, but only that particular thing which you said it was. But if all things are in that which is generated [from the One], which of the things in it are you going to say that the One is? Since it is none of them, it can only be said to be beyond them. But these things are beings, and being: so it is `beyond being'. This phrase `beyond being' does not mean that it is a particular thing for it makes no positive statement about it and it does not say its name, but all it implies is that it is `not this'. But if this is what the phrase does, it in no way comprehends the One: it would be absurd to seek to comprehend that boundless nature; for anyone who wants to do this has put himself out of the way of following at all, even the least distance, in its traces; but just as he who wishes to see the intelligible nature will contemplate what is beyond the perceptible if he has no mental image of the perceptible, so he who wishes to contemplate what is beyond the intelligible will contemplate it when he has let all the intelligible go; he will learn that it is by means of the intelligible, but what it is like by letting the intelligible go. But this "what it is like" must indicate that it is `not like': for there is no `being like' in what is not a `something'. But we in our (aporia) do not know what we ought to say, and are speaking of what cannot be spoken, and give it a name because we want to indicate it to ourselves as best we can. But perhaps this name `One' contains [only] a denial of multiplicity. This is why the Pythagoreans symbolically indicated it to each other by the name Apollo, in the negation of the multiple. But if the One name and reality expressed was to be taken positively it would be less clear than if we did not give it a name at all " (Plotinus "Enneads" V.5.6, Loeb, pp 173-174)
A second reason for using an allegory is because seeing reality nondualistically is counter to our normal way of viewing reality, and thus it is very difficult to visualize what is being spoken of. My view is that it is helpful to initially rely on an allegorical device in order to locate the various ways of approaching reality, given an understanding of reality as nondual in nature. And such a device may help to clarify the differing perspectives of metaphysicians, mystics, scientists, poets, and others that try to portray reality to us. To that purpose I present the following allegory:
There is, immanent within everything that manifests in this universe, a horizon that acts like a light prism. On one side is the source of `light', this `immaterial' nature that I have spoken of, that is the source of the emanation of the phenomenal universe. By immanent, I mean something different than "in". Meister Eckhart (13th-14th German theologian and mystical philosopher) used an example of wine in a wood cask to illustrate the difference between being "in" and being "immanent." The wine, he said, is in the cask differently than it is in the wood, which it permeates. We can drink the wine in the cask, but not the wine in the wood. So there are these two different meanings of "in". But it is different, he said, with spiritual immanence. Such immanence means not only that the wine is permeating the wood, but the wood is also permeating the wine, and the wine is the wood, and the wood, the wine. Thus this horizon that I speak of is not a real separation in the phenomena of the world, but rather is a distinction between their manifestation and the nature that is the source of those manifestations, that does not rest apart from them. On this 'side' of the horizon, which is the intelligible side, is but the tip of the iceberg that we normally refer to as "reality."
To transcend this horizon, which is a union with wholeness, a return to the source, and a dropping away or dissolving of separation, is the provenance of mystics, who return to teach from their newfound understanding. Some mystics only have that experience once, others more frequently, but none that I know of can sustain it indefinitely, nor initiate it at will. Plotinus, for instance, is reported to have had that experience four times in his life by his student Porphyry.
This horizon, which acts like a prism, splits the 'clear light' that is God's emanation into separate beams of light, just as a prism does with visible light. These beams are not straight though, but writhe and vibrate, weave and braid themselves, in a constant flux, a constant movement, a constant activity of light that is the manifestation of this phenomenal world (one can see a direct correlation with current "String" theories). These beams are ontological they are beings and things. They cause various shadows to fall on each other, and it is those shadows on the beams that weave this world of appearances and perceived differences. It is the appearance of the beams on this 'side' of the horizon that is durational. The differences between them, which are caused by the shadows that are not real but only apparent, are the material from which we construct the spatial separation of things. The duration we use to construct time. Space-time thus is nothing other than an imaginative imposition upon the emanation of light.
This world is coherent because what appears here arises from the wholeness of this nature. Without an underlying nature, there is no reason that there would be anything at all, because in the absence of a real, as opposed to an epistemological, nature there would be no source for anything whatsoever to happen. And the one salient proof that there is a real nature is that the `random' activity that we experience is stochastic, rather than truly random. What appears is the presencing of this nature its activity and this nature is awareness. Awareness is not a phenomenal manifestation it is not ontological. Instead, it is the nature of all manifestation. It is this insight that is the source of the profoundest wisdom to be found in spiritual traditions.
A scientist looks at the shadows, facing away from the beams of light, and attempts to discover similarities between them so that they can work out the 'laws' of their appearance and changes over time. These laws are imaginative empirical constructions that allow the scientist to explain the appearances and predict their manifestation, and later to create techniques that enables us to reproduce at will these universal aspects of shadows to serve our practical needs.
A poet or artist looks directly at the beams of light and notices that there is a unity that transcends all of these beams which is hidden from us by the immanent horizon within them. They use their creative imaginations to project a reminder of that unity through their creative use of language, color, texture, and shape.
The mystic, before he or she becomes a mystic, is able somehow to turn away from the beams and shadows, and `travel' to the source all that remains then is unity. No individual any longer, for such individuality was left on the other side of the horizon, like shoes that are left at the entrance to a home. It is not just a `turning toward', but a `return to', that the mystic performs. A `turning toward' would leave the might-be mystic where he or she was standing, only now to have the outlook of a poet or artist, or perhaps a saint who has garnered an intuitive insight. The return, however, is transcendence and the recognition of the full presence that can only be found in wholeness. The mystic returns again because this, here, now, is loved. It has to be loved because that is what it all always already is. Standing closest to the horizon, the mystic is motioning towards the light so that those with their back to it might notice it and turn themselves.
The scientist, the poet, the artist, and the mystic are only beams of light manifestations of God. Their individuality is apparent, but not real. This is the justification for the assertion of non-identification with the ego that is to be found in all traditions of spiritual nonduality.
But you see, with all this activity here, now, there is really nothing happening to shake up wholeness. It only appears to be the case because of the prism effect of the horizon. It is possible for each beam of light to recognize its own nature in the other beams of light. Each beam exists only as a phenomenal manifestation, but is not real itself because it is an emanation of the whole. Yet it exists as an individuated perspective of that whole.
The Problem with Conceptual Thought
The Vedas are the foundational scriptures of Hinduism's various schools, including Advaita Vedanta (nondual Vedanta). The word "vedas" comes from the Sanskrit word: véda which shares the same Proto-Indo-European root (*uÌ¯eidos) as the Greek word Îµá¼¶Î´Î¿Ï, normally rendered as "form" and sometimes as "idea" in English. It is taken to mean "knowledge or wisdom" in the Hindu usage, and it is perhaps not difficult to see a similarity in the authoritative nature of the Vedas with Plato's depiction of Îµá¼¶Î´Î¿Ï in his philosophical writings, where it is discrimination of the forms in all things that are the source of our knowledge. A discrimination that is only possible because our souls have come into contact with the forms themselves before being incarnated in these bodies.
We can view a phenomenon as a nexus of instantiation of particular forms or ideas, and this can lead us to believe that our concepts and ideas are similar. However, there is a difference between them that causes concepts to hide the truth from us, according to nondual traditions. Usually, both ideas and concepts are denigrated, but this undermines our rational accomplishments so I assert the distinction between ideas and concepts. A concept is an idea in essence, but not in content. Because everything that manifests phenomenally is a nexus of instantiation of ideas, even thoughts are ideas in this sense, if one accepts that they are phenomenally manifested as brain activity, which I do. The content of a conception, however, is a second-level generalization or discovered universal aspect of different, though (now) conceptually related, phenomena. They are the product of human reason, and it is helpful to consider them as only imaginative, or as a scientist would say: fallible. The reason for this is that conceptual content does not exist in the same sense as ideas do, which is the basis for our distinction between empirical and rational knowledge. Concepts are rarely reflective of the unity of reality; instead they tend to be an imaginative convention of reason that is purposive in intent.
This is why, in nondual traditions, spiritual practitioners are warned away from conceptual thinking, since the content of concepts does not bring one toward the ideas of reality and its unity, but instead, leads further into the imaginative world of purposive human thought and action. There is a difference between thoughts that reflect truth and those that are imaginative assertions of universality: the latter entail a turn back toward (epistrophe) the unity of reality, while the latter maintain a focus upon the phenomenal manifestation of reality and a search therein for the shadows of that unity. We notice aspects of phenomenal reality and we fabricate names for those aspects. Sometimes what we are noticing has no truth in reality and thus are error or false belief; other times they are but the faint appearance of some truth, which, like the elephant of Indian lore, is mischaracterized because its not seen in its fullness.
The Source of Mechanistic Views of Reality
I argue that there are no mechanisms anywhere in reality, other than in the human imagination and in our imaginatively constructed devices that harness the stochastic behavior of materials for an end. Biological organisms are not machines, and computers are an excellent example of the imaginative harnessing of indeterminate behavior. Mechanistic views result from of our attempt to remove nature from its naturing in order to focus solely on the plurality of phenomenal appearances for practical ends.
One of my explanations for how this occurs has to do with our treatment of awareness, which is normally seen to be some kind of faculty or function of material bodies or immaterial minds. But awareness cannot be a faculty or a function of anything, but must be just what it is, because what it is cannot be any kind of receptivity. No one has ever explained how it can be that anything having to do with a body can be aware of anything. Instead, what is done is that in order to explain how awareness in one particular context could be, say our visual sense perception, we introduce something else that makes it so, the mind for example, but do not explain how it is that the new thing is aware. We explain it away, for instance, as a faculty of the mind that allows it to `see' what the eyes `see'. We ignore the outlying difficulty what does it mean to be aware? dismiss it as something to be treated in the future after the important problems are fully dealt with, and then forget that there were any outlying difficulties by `black-boxing' the whole affair. In financial accounting it is a truism that a penny's discrepancy could be evidence of a billion dollar fraud, rather than being an insignificant rounding error. Theoretical explanations, including speculative philosophical ones, rarely exhibit the same rigor as financial accounting does!
What could all of these faculties be, that our philosophical and theological accounts are littered with, other than being devices that appear to be necessary to explain what otherwise has no place in this universe of phenomenal appearances, or rather can be nothing other than this universe of appearances? Awareness cannot be a faculty; it must be the whole, because there is nothing else in reality. Thus every object is awareness as that object, which it emanates, and not an awareness of that object. It is not the eye that sees it is vision that `eyes'. Each thing or being is only a separated beam of the clear light of awareness.
There is no witnessing, no transcendental onlooker. That way of depicting consciousness, as we normally view the awareness of something, is misleading because it demands the question: what is being witnessed? What are we conscious of? And these questions either have a false answer: that there is something else that is witnessed; or an absurd answer: witnessing is a one-sided fact. The absurd answer leads to nihilism. The false answer creates our dualistic understanding of reality by adumbrating it as so many things. The alternative is to turn back toward the intelligible light, paying attention to the nature of all phenomenal manifestations, in order to notice the impossibility of real separation. This is the succinct point of all spiritual practices.
It is an easy error to take this to imply some kind of philosophical idealism, but it must be remembered that ideas are merely the apparent separation of the pure light into separate beams, and "minds" are merely an imaginative invention. Neither are real in a disontological sense.
 a pollõn: not many for this Pythagorean etymology see Plutarch "Isis and Osiris" 381F
 Stochastic: following a probability distribution that can be analyzed but not predicted precisely.
top of page