The Essence of the Teachings on the Highest Truth

This post presents my translation of the first 13 verses of the Paramārtha-sāra. The title of the work means "The Essence of the Teachings on the Highest Truth" or "The Core of the Teachings on Ultimate Reality". It was written by Abhinavagupta (c. 975-1025), who also wrote the TantrālokaThe Sanskrit text of this amazing work was first published in Kashmīr in 1916 (by 'published' I mean printed on a printing press and distributed widely and cheaply; prior to that date it existed only in the form of laboriously copied and hoarded birch-bark manuscripts!).

Yet, surprisingly, Abhinavagupta's Paramārtha-sāra is actually a thorough rewriting of a text of the same name, written about 400 years earlier, and attributed by tradition to Patañjali!  The earlier Paramārtha-sāra was a popular text in Abhinava's time, and he was audacious in rewriting it from the nondual Tantrik point of view — and his audacity bore fruit, since his Paramārtha-sāra is better known today. So the history of the text, in brief, is this: someone called Ādiśeṣa, sometimes identified with Patañjali, wrote the original version as a treatise combining Sānkhya and theistic Vedānta in 500 or 600 CE; Abhinavagupta thoroughly rewrote it as a nondual Tantrik treatise in 1000 CE or so; the government of Kashmīr published it from the manuscript sources in 1916; and the text has been translated half-a-dozen times in the last few years, so its study is very much alive today, despite being composed one thousand years ago and published one hundred years ago! 

Though there are other translations available (Bansat-Boudon & Tripāṭhī; Pandit; Barnett; etc.), my translation is perhaps more accessible to practitioners and nonscholars, which is really the only justification I have in offering it, aside from simply being a lover of Abhinavagupta's writing. So here you go!  This post is the first 12% of the text; I hope to get to the rest before the year is out. After each verse is my original commentary; translation and commentary ©2016 Christopher Wallis.

Paraṃ para-sthaṃ gahanād anādim ekaṃ niviṣṭaṃ bahudhā guhāsu |
Sarvālayaṃ sarva-carācara-sthaṃ tvām eva śambhuṃ śaraṇaṃ prapadye || 1 ||

You are unsurpassed fullness, the beginningless transcendent reality beyond Māyā, [yet] You are the One who is seated in the cave of the heart of all the various living beings; the substrate of all, abiding in all things both moving and unmoving; [therefore] I take refuge in You alone, Benevolent One. || 1

Note 1: The commentator Yogarāja (Abhinavagupta's disciple Kṣemarāja's disciple) argues that para (lit., 'supreme') means completely full (pūrṇa) with all five primary Powers (for these śaktis, see p. 101 of Tantra Illuminated).  Note 2: I like how with the pronoun you, Abhinavagupta can indicate his nondual doctrine — he is addressing God, but also the reader's core Self. 

Wandering bewildered through the cycle of suffering beginning with residence in the womb and ending with death [only to begin again], a disciple asked the blessed Lord who is the foundation [of all this] about that which is ultimately true (paramārtha). || 2

The Teacher answered him with the Stanzas on the Foundation [of Reality] (also known as the Essence of Ultimate Reality or Paramārtha-sāra). Here Abhinavagupta gives a summary of that [work] according to the View of Śaivism (śiva-śāsana)|| 3

After this three-verse introduction, the work proper begins. 

The four [coexistent] Spheres—Energy, Māyā, Nature, and Earth—have each been brought into being and nourished by the Lord through the overflowing of the magnificence of his own powers. || 4

Note: let us remember that for Abhinavagupta, 'the Lord' refers to transindividual Awareness, the ground of being which is not different from the awareness by which you are perceiving and comprehending these words right now. He writes for a theistic audience and uses unabashedly theistic language, yet in passages that are less introductory, reminds his more serious students that the divinity worshipped in this system is simply nondual Awareness itself.  Note 2: there is a 'sexual' metaphor here in that Energy, Māyā, Nature, and Earth are all feminine words in Sanskrit, and these overlapping 'spheres' arise in union with the 'masculine' Lord. The only point to playing with the inherent gender of the Sanskrit words here is to hint at the fact that phenomenal experience arises through the union of apparently opposite principles, or, one could say, through the dynamic coherence of complementary polarities. 

Within these [Spheres] is this universe, a continuum of wondrously diverse bodies, faculties [of perception and action], and the worlds [they perceive and act within]—and the experiencer of all of this is none other than Śiva himself in embodied form, having [voluntarily] taken on creatureness. || 5

Though there appear to be many consciousnesses, in reality there is only One—one Power of Awareness experiencing the universe that is its own body through countless pairs of eyes, ears, hands, etc. One being looking out through billions of pairs of eyes. That's why it's so powerful to look so deeply into someone's eyes that you connect with the consciousness looking out of them—you're seeing yourself in another form. 

Just as a flawless crystal takes on the appearance of various colors [when held before them], in the same way the Lord takes on the form of gods, humans, beasts, and plants. || 6

Let's make this teaching personal: you are like a flawless crystal reflecting a particular color in that your real nature is perfect divine Awareness, appearing as a human being. 

The following verses (7-11) are some of the most beautiful I've read from Abhinavagupta: I invite you to meditate on their profundity. You can also hear them read to music below. (Apologies for the low quality of the audio clip — it's from a live event.)

In moving water the moon’s image moves, and in still water becomes still. Just so is this Self, [a form of] the Great Lord, [inflected] in the classes of bodies, senses, and worlds. || 7

As the reflected image of the moon appears to be affected by the state of the medium in which it is reflected, the Divine Consciousness appears to be affected by the conditions of embodiment—but the heavenly orb which is the source and cause of the reflection shines undisturbed.

Just as the earth’s shadow, though unseen, is revealed [when] before the moon’s orb, even so this Self, though it in everything, is revealed in the mirror of the mind by means of its recourse to the sensual world. || 8

This is a beautifully poetic way of saying something perfectly simple: in ordinary cognition, the Self-that-is-consciousness is revealed only in relation to a sense-object, such as in the cognition 'I hear a sound'. The cognition 'I', referring to the hearer of the sound, is a reflection (and contraction) of Awareness in the 'mirror' of the mind. The contemplative individual might then be prompted to ask "What is the source or basis of this 'I'?"  For such a person, the 'I'-cognition that arises in the mind is a clue to look back to the basis of the I-sense, revealed in the innermost core of one's being as unparticularized unconditioned unlimited unborn & deathless Awareness itself. 

Just like a face appears in a stainless mirror, likewise this [Self] shines, expressing its radiance, in the mind made transparent by the touch of God’s graceaktipāta). || 9

Though your real Self is eternally perfect radiant pure Being, you might perceive yourself otherwise, just as someone looking in a mirror with a dirt mark might think their own face is dirty. Therefore, the faculty of mind requires a kind of 'purification' in order to reflection the nature of the Self accurately. That purification is bestowed by spiritual awakening. Initial awakening is known in Śaiva Tantra as śaktipāta, which means "the descent of Power" or "the touch of Grace." (My PhD thesis focuses on the doctrine of śaktipāta.) The initial awakening of śaktipāta leads inevitably, in time, to full awakeness (bodha), full awareness of one's real nature.

Radiant, completely whole, full of joy due to reposing in itself, abundant with the [powers of] Willing, Knowing, and Acting, utterly replete with infinite power, free of all conceptualization, pure & clear, peaceful, never arising or dissolving: such is the supreme Reality within which appears this entire world [of our experience], consisting of thirty-six principles (tattvas)|| 10-11

The Supreme Reality (paraṃ tattvam) is of course transindividual Awareness. All phenomena are internal to Awareness. The world is internal to Awareness. Nothing is external to Awareness. This is your direct experience, not some mystical pronouncement. (Have a look for yourself—have you ever experienced anything external to awareness? Do you have any evidence of anything existing separate from awareness?) Nor is this view of reality necessarily opposed to science: extremely well-respected cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman (U.C. Irvine) says, "I believe that consciousness and its contents are all that exists. Spacetime, matter and fields never were the fundamental denizens of the universe but have always been, from their beginning, among the humbler contents of consciousness, dependent on it for their very being." (From Hoffman is working on a mathematical model of universal Consciousness as the basis of reality and ground of being.) 

Abhinavagupta invites you to contemplate the nature of this infinite Awareness that you are with the list of descriptive qualities beginning with 'Radiant' and ending with 'never arising or dissolving'. Though words cannot adequately describe its nature, these words point in the right direction. 

Just as [the images of] various things such as cities and villages reflected in a mirror are inseparable [from it], and yet appear [conceptually] distinct from each other and from the mirror, this world manifests without any separation from the flawless Awareness of Supreme Bhairava, yet [seems] internally differentiated and different from [that divine Awareness]. || 12-13

The commentator Yogarāja explains that the analogy of a mirror is appropriate because the mirror transcends the sum total of its reflected images; that is, the nature of the mirror cannot be fully described in terms of them. Secondly, he says, the mirror is 'pure' in the sense that its essential nature does not need to alter in order to reflect this object vs. that one; you don't need one kind of mirror to reflect a pot and a different kind of mirror to reflect a cloth. Similarly, awareness is all-embracing and infinitely malleable.

My commentary: Abhinavagupta repeatedly uses the metaphor of a mirror in his work, because it is almost a perfect analogy to the nature of Consciousness, since the latter unifies all apparently disparate phenomena. Though all we see in a mirror is light reflected from a single surface, our brains carve up the image and label pieces of it as 'my face', 'chair', 'table', etc.—in fact you're so accustomed to this that you easily forget the fact that you've never seen your own face directly. The reflection is your face, in your mental image of the world. In the same way, though everything is the Light of Consciousness, one easily believes in the appearance of separation amongst the objects one perceives, since perception is interpreted based on concepts that are themselves based on culturally-conditioned distinctions of name and form, when in reality there is only one continuous field of energy. Secondly, you easily believe in the separation of what you perceive from yourself, since you don't notice that what you habitually call 'me' is just the most persistent and proximate reflection in the infinite mirror of your Awareness. In reality, everything you perceive is equally you, since it is all equally internal to your awareness.  

Make sense? No? If not, that's because the mind has a really really hard time grasping a vision of reality that represents a completely different way of experiencing reality from how it was conditioned to see things. I thought about (and thought I understood) the everything-is-consciousness view for many, many years before I actually started experiencing it; and when I did, I was stunned at how totally I had failed to grasp it. The concept just points you in the right direction; only the experience grants real understanding. To close, then, let's consider another verse in which Abhinavagupta uses the mirror analogy, and you can just read it as poetry, tasting its resonance:

"The entire universe shines here within the Self, just as a complex creation [appears] in a mirror. However, awakened Awareness (bodha) consciously articulates the universe in accordance with the nectarean taste of its own self-reflection (vimarśa)—no mirror can do that."  (Tantrasāra chapter three summary verse, in my translation)

Postscript: any readers of this blog who want to go deeper into the teachings and practices of original Śaiva Tantra should go here to find out about our six-month immersion program, The Fire of Transformation.  It is for anyone who feels a longing to immerse in the teachings featured on this blog and is ready to commit to a daily practice and weekly study session. It starts in March, so submit your application soon!

Title page of the 1916 publication of the Paramārtha-sāra (Sanskrit text only).

Title page of the 1916 publication of the Paramārtha-sāra (Sanskrit text only).

Cover of the 2011 hyperacademic translation (it has 1,445 footnotes!) of the root-text together with Yogarāja's commentary. A great resource for scholars. 

Cover of the 2011 hyperacademic translation (it has 1,445 footnotes!) of the root-text together with Yogarāja's commentary. A great resource for scholars.