How the one becomes many

how the one becomes many: recognition sutra #7

Welcome back! This is part a series of posts on the 1000-year-old spiritual masterpiece The Recognition Sutras by Rājānaka Kshemarāja. In introducing Sūtra Seven, Kshemarāja explains the cause of suffering and of liberation from suffering in the simplest possible terms:

Since liberation (mukti) results from correct insight into one’s essential nature, while the cycle of suffering (saṃsāra) results from wrong understanding of it, its nature is now explained in greater detail.

The spiritual goal of this system is mukti (aka mokṣa), commonly translated as “liberation” but perhaps better rendered “freedom” or “release.” In both India and the West, mukti has frequently been objectified, made into a “thing” to be attained, imagined as a kind of divinely elevated state of constant bliss. This is not correct. We can understand mukti better with reference to a more basic meaning of the word: the opposite of imprisonment. One who has been freed (mukta) from imprisonment is not constantly in the same state of mind as a result, yet his daily life experience is very different from when he was imprisoned. In one sense, he is the same person as before; in another, his experience of life is radically different, filled with possibility and a deeper appreciation for things others might take for granted. This, then, is closer to what is envisioned as the goal of the path: a state of release from all the cycles of mind-created suffering, resulting in a feeling of freedom and natural appreciation for the simple things of life. 

Kshemarāja tells us that this freedom is the natural and inevitable result of “correct insight into one’s essential nature (svarūpa-jñāna).” When you see yourself as you really are, free from bondage to the impressions of your mind’s conditioning, you access your natural state of freedom. By contrast, when your knowledge of your essential nature is misaligned with reality, the cycles of suffering run on and on (the literal meaning of saṃsāra). Therefore, Kshema offers us a more minute analysis of the nature of our embodied consciousness in Sūtra Seven.

स चैको द्विरूपस्त्रिमयश्चतुरात्मा स्पतपञ्चकस्वभावः ॥ ७ ॥

It is one, and [yet] it is two; it consists of three, has a quadruple body, [and also] is seven, five, and seven times five in its nature. || 7 ||

Like light passed through a prism refracts into all the colors of the rainbow, the One is also two, and three, and four, and five, and seven, and thirty-five. Each of these numbers correspond to a doctrinal list, each list being a different 'angle of analysis' of the nature of embodied consciousness. We have already learned about the oneness of reality in the First Sūtra, and its twoness in Sūtra Three. He will cover the three in Sūtra Nine, so here we can learn more about the fourfold embodiment of consciousness we call a human being. Kshema writes,

It has a quadruple being because its [embodied] nature consists of the Void, Life-force (prāṇa), the eight-fold subtle energy body, and the physical body. 

The Tantrik quadripartite self is detailed in Tantra Illuminated (pp. 92-101), where it is called the “five-layered self” because the latter explanation counts Awareness as a layer, though of course it in fact permeates the whole. We can briefly summarize the other four aspects of selfhood briefly, moving from subtle to coarse, from core to periphery. As already briefly discussed in Sūtra Six, over-identification with any of these four layers results in misalignments that inevitably bring suffering. 

The deepest layer of a human being (other than dynamic nondual Awareness) is that of the Void (śūnya). It is transcendent, completely empty of all form and energy, absolutely still and silent. It is, in a sense, Śiva without Śakti, or rather with Her existing as unexpressed potentiality. Everyone accesses this layer in deep dreamless sleep, but we can also touch it while awake in meditation. To some people, it feels like terrifying nothingness, and they pull back from it immediately; to others, it feels like blessed peace, and they love immersing in it, even to the point of escapism. Some meditators identify with it to the point of denying selfhood to any other layer of their being, feeling “I am not of this world; my true self transcends all things.” Now we know that exclusive identification with any layer of your being is a misalignment that brings suffering. In this case, those identified with the Void-level tend to partially or completely renounce the material world, body, and mind, becoming transcendentalists. They can attain deep states of peace, but cannot integrate them into daily life, sometimes losing their ability to relate to others or to their own body. This is not the Tantrik path. (Note that it is easy to cite more extreme cases to make the point, but this should not prevent you from reflecting on whether you have this tendency, or any that follow, in a lesser degree.)

The next layer of the self is that of the prāṇa, or which is usually translated as “vital energy” or “life-force,” something we share with all living things. The movement of prāṇa, which is intimately connected to (but not identical with) the breath, is vital for life to continue. In fact, it serves as an interface between the physical body and the mind, and is key to the mind-body connection, though it is subtler and more fundamental than either. The amplification and depletion of prāṇa, which is connected to diet, exercise, sleep, and thought-patterns, is responsible for our general energy-level and many of our moods as well. Identification with the prāṇa-layer is expressed in such statements as “I am energized,” “I’m drained,” “I feel alive!” or “I feel blah.” Over-identification with the prāṇa leads us to put too much significance on our moods, and to form or modify self-images on the basis of our mood or energy-level.

The next layer is that of the eight-fold subtle body (puryaṣṭaka). The subtle body, often known in the West as the “energy body” consists of the three aspects of the mind (manas, attention, ahankāra, ego, and buddhi, “higher mind”) and the five subtle elements (tanmātras), which in this context denote the impressions left by things we have heard, touched, seen, tasted, and smelled. The subtle body, then, is essentially the mind, though the Tantrik understanding of mind is broader and deeper than the Western one. The subtle body can be understood as the way in which the mind extends itself throughout the physical body. For example, it is the means by which mental and emotional states impact and shape the physical body. Dis-ease on the mental-emotional level creates corresponding disease on the physical level through the mechanism of the subtle body. From the yogic perspective, the subtle level, while intangible, is more fundamental than the physical, and sets the pattern for it.

Over-identification with the subtle body layer takes many forms: inability to be okay with certain emotional states, belief that your stories about reality are reality, clinging to old wounds or past glories and defining yourself in their terms, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain as the way to happiness, and so on. We express our identification with the subtle body layer in thoughts or statements such as “I am smart/stupid,” “I am competent/incompetent,” “I am sad/happy,” “I feel good/bad,” and so on. From these statements, you can see that identification with this layer is almost universal. It may seem that no-one is free from such identification, but awakened beings sometimes use a phrase like "I feel good/bad" as a matter of verbal convention, without actually experiencing that the “I” is conditioned by these states or defined in these terms.

Identification with the physical body layer is expressed in many thoughts or statements like “I am fat/thin,” “I am young/old,” “I’m pretty/ ugly,” and so on. Believing thoughts such as these indicates a belief that your identity is defined by your physicality. If you are identified with the body to the exclusion of the deeper layers of your being, then you will necessarily base your self-worth on your own and others’ opinions of your body. In this case, you are setting yourself up for considerable suffering, for the one universal truth of the body is that it will break down, age, decay, and die. If you believe you are this body and nothing more, that truth is terrifying.

This philosophy is beginning to sound like that of a renunicate tradition, isn’t it? But the Tantrik teaching is not so much that identification with these four layers is wrong, but rather that over-identification or exclusive identification with one or more of them causes suffering. The Tāntrika identifies with all of these layers (and none of them) equally, seeing them all as expressions of dynamic nondual divine Awareness. To put it another way, Awareness vibrates forth into manifestation as all the more peripheral layers of your being, from the Void outwards. The goal here is to let everything adopt its proper place, to know the difference between what is core and what is peripheral, what is eternal and what is impermanent. We seek to honor all four layers of our being while realizing that none of them is our essence-nature. We might express this truth with the statement, “I am all of these layers of being and yet I am inexpressibly more than that!”

For a more detailed discussion of the quadruple body and its application in Tantrik philosophy, go here, and for a comparison with the Vedāntic kośa system, go here.

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sūtras (Mattamayūra Press, 2017).