Reality is a co-creation: Recognition Sutra #3
<Drum roll> Presenting the third mind-melting sūtra in this monumental masterpiece of spiritual philosophy! Having established in sūtras One and Two what the fundamental nature of reality is, in order to explain the nature of the universe in terms of its parts, Kshemarāja teaches:
तन्नानानुरूपग्राह्यग्राहकभेदात् ॥ ३
It is diverse because it is divided
into mutually adapted subjects and objects.
This is the fundamental dichotomy of manifest reality: there are things that perceive (which we call “subjects”) and things that are perceived (“objects,” and this includes anything perceivable, not just physical objects). Tellingly, the word Kṣhemarāja uses for 'subject' in sūtra three literally means “grasper,” while the corresponding word for 'object' is literally “graspable thing.” (Where 'grasp' means 'cognize' or 'comprehend'.)
Much of Indian philosophy turns on the issues raised by the apparent dichotomy of perceiver vs. perceived. For example, what exactly is the “thing which perceives”? If the core self of a sentient being is that being’s capacity to be conscious of something, where can we locate that capacity? Is it a side-effect of having physical body? Is it a mental function? If so, how is it that we can exist as a “me” that watches the thought-process while remaining separate from it?
In the extremely influential pre-tantrik philosophy called Sānkhya, this line of questioning resolved itself into a doctrine that asserted an absolute dualism between Spirit and Matter, where “spirit” means pure consciousness (puruṣa), a.k.a. the perceiving witness (sākṣin); and matter (prakṛti), which is unconscious, is all that can be perceived. In this system, spirit is unchanging and unaffected by matter, incapable of acting on it or of wanting to act on it; and matter is constantly changing, due to the constant combination and recombination of its three basic constituents (the guṇas). Spirit can see but not act, and matter can act but not see (at least, not consciously). Furthermore, the Sānkhyas asserted that anything that can be objectified (i.e., made into an object of consciousness) was part of matter—and therefore, our bodies, our minds, our thoughts and emotions, are all part of inert, insentient Matter. Our true self, on the other hand, is simply that conscious spirit that illuminates any aspect of matter. When enough energy is directed towards some aspect of inert matter, such as the mind, it appears to take on the qualities of spirit, like iron heated by fire starts to glow. Thus we come to see the mind as our locus of self-hood, when it is simply a mechanism of action, just like the body. In fact, the Sānkhyas say, conscious spirit (puruṣa) and the mind (part of prakṛti) are absolutely distinct, and are not of the same nature. It’s as if they imagined a glass wall between consciousness and everything it can see (including thoughts). Thus they could assert that spirit was pure, untainted by the messy and degraded world, which it is ever content to merely witness.
It was this very Sānkhya philosophy that Patañjali espoused (though not very vigorously) in his Yoga-sūtra. But if you think about this picture of things for long enough, you will doubtless see that it really doesn’t work. You will probably see the same problem with it that the Tāntrikas saw: upon deeper reflection, it is impossible to draw a hard line between consciousness and its objects. If there was such a line, you would have to assert that the mind was simply an organic computer, making all decisions based on its programming, and unaffected by the consciousness that watches. But this doesn’t seem to fit our experience very well. How can the mind be totally separate from the consciousness which enlivens, animates, and powers it? Furthermore, though Sānkhya posits an absolute distinction between subjects and objects, any subject can objectify other conscious beings, thus apparently compromising their status as “perceiver” rather than “perceived”.
The only real solution is to posit that the perceiver and the perceived are two aspects of one thing, of a single process. This is the doctrine of nonduality that is fundamental to the tradition we are studying, already presented in chapters one and two. On this view, any subject can also be an object. But what are the implications of the assertion that one thing (Goddess Awareness) manifests as two (perceiver and perceived)? What it means, says Kṣemarāja, is that the perceiver and perceived must be understood as anurūpa: mutually adapted, shaping one another in interdependence, conforming themselves each to the other. In the act of perceiving, the perceiver is subtly changed by what s/he perceives; and what s/he perceives is changed as a result of being perceived; and this is constantly happening, moment to moment.
As conscious beings, we are not the passive recipients of the data of some independent, objective reality flowing into us from the outside. Rather, the principle of anurūpa expressed in this sūtra is telling us that in any act of perception, the object (or person) being perceived and the one perceiving it are co-creators, as it were, of the experience of reality being had. You are as responsible for the creation of the experience of any object as the intrinsic nature of the object itself. For example, we come at each experience with many pre-formed interpretations about how things are, interpretations that shape and delimit our experience. On the other hand, the experience you have of the object impacts you and shapes or reshapes your assumptions. Different assumptions lead to different actions, which then lead to different experiences (and in the Tantrik View, the power of awareness and the power of action cannot be separated, for the latter is the expression of the former—precisely the opposite of the Sānkhya view). It is what scholars call a dialectical process: the object affects your consciousness, and your consciousness affects the object, which then affects your consciousness, and on and on. It's the old chicken-and-egg situation, since neither of these can be identified as 'first' or having priority. This intimate of a relationship is only possible, the Tāntrikas argue, if the two are two aspects of one; and they sought, through meditation techniques, to realize each object of experience in its true nature: as a vibration of Awareness.
The shift from the Sānkhya view to the Tantrik is perhaps parallel to the shift in physics from the deterministic, mechanistic view of reality expressed by Newtonian physics to that of relativity and quantum mechanics. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” showed us that the act of observation affects that which is observed. More specifically, the way in which something is observed determines how the observed object manifests. Nothing exists in a “pure” state in which is it is uninfluenced by the observer. In other words, we cannot know the purely “objective” or unobserved nature of a thing, because it has no such nature. The implications of this are tremendous, and we cannot explore them all here. To put one of the implications in Kṣhemarāja’s terms, you can only see reality in the way that a being configured such as you are sees reality. If you wish to experience reality differently, you must 'change the prescription of your glasses', as Swāmī Muktānanda put it, not attempt to manipulate reality.
Even though the teaching in this sūtra seems esoteric, as usual it is simply a subtle and profound reflection on the most fundamental features of our everyday life. In the experience of any object, neither the object nor the subject can be said to wholly determine the nature of that experience. Rather, the knower and the known are co-arising, interdependent, co-creating aspects of one reality. If this is true with any object of consciousness, how much more is it true when the “object” is another person, when two people are each perceivers and yet are each objects of perception to the other? They are both actively co-creating a reality, with the result that they can create a whole world unto themselves: for in relationship, each becomes a person that they would not be except in relationship to that other being.
This post is an excerpt from Chapter Three of my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sutras.