Recognition Sutra #9
Nondual Shaiva Tantra has a prescription for how to be happy: truly, deeply, sustainably happy. Simply understand the three main causes of human suffering, frustration, and misery, and then antidote them. This is not all that easy, of course, but it is much easier when you understand what the main causes of suffering are, which the tradition calls the three malas, or Impurities of Understanding. They are explained in the 1000-year-old commentary on this sūtra:
चिद्वत्तच्छक्तिसङ्कोचान्मलावृतः संसारी ॥ ९
Due to the contraction of those Powers belonging to Awareness, It becomes a saṃsārin, veiled by Impurity.
First, a little bit of context. Since in this View everything is an expression of Consciousness, that is, a coalescence into form of the primordial formless Absolute, duality must be only an appearance, not ultimately true. Thus the Powers of Consciousness only appear to take on contraction. The three primary Powers of Willing, Knowing, and Acting appear as the three ‘Impurities’ explained below. A human being who is covered by these three Impurities is called a saṃsārin, one who wanders aimlessly through the world, helplessly bound to the cycles of pain and pleasure. 99.9% of humanity is in this condition.
The three Impurities are covered in some detail on pp. 150-162 of Tantra Illuminated. In the dualistic form of Shaivism, these were considered actual impurities, real metaphysical bonds that 'stain' the soul and can only be removed through prescribed ritual action. In nondual Śaiva Tantra, however, they are understood as forms of ignorance, that is, mostly unconscious cognitive errors that can be eradicated through the cultivation of insight and clear seeing. When they are eradicated, the Powers of Awareness automatically expand into their full expression. When these Powers are contracted, it appears that one is a tiny part of the world. When those same Powers are expanded, it becomes clear that the world is a tiny part of one's true self.
Kshemarāja, the master who revealed the Recognition Sūtras, explains Sūtra Nine as follows (my translation of the original Sanskrit):
To explain: the Power of Will, whose nature is unimpeded freedom and spontaneity (svātantrya), in contracted form is the Impurity of Individuality (āṇava-mala), the state in which one thinks oneself incomplete and imperfect (apūrṇa).
The Impurity of Individuality, by which one sees oneself as a tiny and insignificant part of the whole, unfulfilled and incomplete (apūrṇa), is here revealed as none other than a contracted form of the Power of Will (icchā-śakti). This makes sense because the more we feel unfulfilled and incomplete, the more we feel the desire to fill the inner void with external objects and experiences (such as wealth, food, sex, family, recognition, fame, etc.). This grasping desire is clearly a contracted form of the Power of Will. Here is the key teaching that Kshemarāja is alluding to: when we feel full and complete, the Will moves from the inside outward, desiring to share that fullness in various ways with other beings. When we feel unfulfilled and incomplete, desire grasps for external things (or people), and seeks to pull them inward in a vain attempt to fill the inner emptiness. Thus the contracted form of the energy moves in the opposite direction from the expanded form: where fullness = desire to share (the fullness overflows), emptiness = desire to grasp and hold and pull close (the vacuum sucks). The former perpetuates fulfillment in a virtuous cycle (since to share your fullness is gratifying); the latter perpetuates emptiness in a vicious cycle (since the void cannot be filled by anything external or impermanent, yet pleasure gives a partial and temporary respite from it). The uncontracted Power of Will is free, open, and spontaneous (svātantrya): it intuitively recognizes that there are countless ways to share one’s fullness, one’s love, all of them beneficial. The contracted Power, by contrast, grasps after the specific thing it thinks it needs to be happy. Since grasping is contractive in and of itself, it can never result in fulfillment. The awakening that shows the way out of this vicious cycle is traditionally called śaktipāta, the Descent of Grace. Kshemarāja goes on:
The Power of Knowing, through gradually increasing contraction, becomes, in [descending] order: omniscience-in-plurality, the acquisition of partial knowledge, the mind-ego-intellect (antaḥkaraṇa), and the five cognitive senses. Subsequently, by taking hold of complete contraction, it becomes the Impurity of Differentiation (māyīya-mala), whose nature is the manifestation of knowable objects [apparently] distinct from oneself.
For a complete explanation of this paragraph, see my forthcoming book The Recognition Sutras. For our present purposes we need only note that the fifth and most contracted form of the Power of Knowing is the Impurity of Differentiation (māyīya-mala, the name being derived from māyā). This refers to the cognitive error by which the objects of consciousness (including other people) are seen as separate from oneself. It is, in a nutshell, subject-object duality. Due to seeing things in this way, we can perform a variety of mental operations such as analysis and categorization. But if we take subject-object duality as primary and fundamental instead of an appearance within a greater unity, the consequences can be dire indeed, including using other people as means to an end (instead of seeing them as ends in themselves) and destructively exploiting the environment. Such things are not natural when you see and feel that everything you can see and feel is a part of you, indeed is you. For more on the Impurity of Differentiation, see pp. 157 of Tantra Illuminated.
We have here been given a map of the stages by which the Power of Knowing contracts into the Impurity of Differentiation, each stage a kind of stepping down into greater specificity, narrowness, concreteness, and apparent limitation. In Tantrik philosophy, all such models are, when reversed, maps of the spiritual journey back to freedom. Therefore, Kshemarāja here implies that we can access the fully expanded Power of Knowing by reversing the stages described: first, shifting out of the default belief in subject-object duality (i.e., seeing in terms of self vs. other) by meditating on raw sensual experience (the totality of what you’re hearing, feeling, seeing, etc.); then by carefully observing the contents of the mind; then by becoming aware that all you think you know constitutes a tiny fraction of a fraction of all possible knowledge, thereby opening up to the sense of wonder. When the openness, humility, and wonder of knowing how little you know is sustained (and when supported by other practices described elsewhere in our text), it opens up further into omniscience-in-plurality, an aspect of the awakened and liberated state. Now, the word omniscience (sarvajña) is here used in a spiritual context, so it does not mean “knowing everything” in the sense of knowing every fact; rather, it means the certain knowledge that you know everything you need to know. As one spiritual master put it, in the liberated state you “know whatever you need to know, when you need to know it (and not a moment sooner).” It is in this sense that your knowing is complete (indeed, this is the only sense in which knowing could ever be complete).
Though he did not know this Tantrik doctrine, the author Alan Watts, on the basis of his own insight, fifty years ago perfectly summarized the Impurities of Individuality and Differentiation in this way:
“It is our firm conviction that beyond this ‘wall of flesh’ lies an alien world only slightly concerned with us, so that much energy is required to command or attract its attention, or to change its behaviour. It was there before we were born, and it will continue after we die. We live in it temporarily as rather unimportant fragments, disconnected and alone. —This whole illusion has its history in ways of thinking; in the images, models, myths, and language systems which we have used for thousands of years to make sense of the world. These have had an effect on our perceptions which seems to be strictly hypnotic.”
Breaking free of this hypnosis, shaking off our mental conditioning, and seeing the illusion as illusion is the process we call awakening.
The Power of Action similarly takes on contraction, successively becoming omnipotence-in-plurality, the acquisition of partial agency, and the five faculties of action. Subsequently, taking on complete limitation, it becomes the Impurity of Action (kārma-mala), consisting of the performance of actions viewed as meritorious and demeritorious.
The Power of Action (kriyā-śakti) is described in terms of the same stepping-down metaphor. As before, in the first stage the Power is complete, but operating in the sphere of plurality. The most contracted form of the Power of Action is the Impurity of Action (kārma-mala). Like the other Impurities, this consists of a cognitive error. In this case, it is the error whereby some actions are viewed as good (śubha) and others as bad (aśubha). This requires some explanation.
A person under the influence of the Impurity of Action regards some actions as śubha, which means good, pure, honest, virtuous, or pleasant, and other actions as aśubha, which means the opposite of all those things. He not only consciously and subconsciously labels actions with these value judgments, but—and this is the important part—he performs some actions and tries to avoid others because of those value judgments. That is to say, his social and cultural programming tells him which actions are good and which are bad and he tries to act in accordance with that programming instead of in accordance with his deeper spiritual intuition about what feels right. This is problematic, because ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are of course mental constructs, not qualities that inhere in reality itself. Tantrik philosophy argues that it’s a problem when belief in ‘good’ and ‘bad’ takes the place of beneficial personal contemplation as to the best course of action, because such beliefs encourage us to follow social prescriptions that may not in fact be truly beneficial in a given situation. That is to say, benefit is always contextual, so it must always be situationally determined, and no single action is either always beneficial or always harmful in every circumstance. Contemplate this for yourself: is there any circumstance in which a ‘bad’ action (up to and including killing) might actually be the right thing to do? Is there any circumstance in which an action usually labeled ‘good’ (such as telling the truth when asked) might actually be harmful? If you can think of even one example in each case, the point is proven. Our best guide to right action is not through our conditioned judgments, but rather to gather information from all sides, invoke our intention to benefit all beings, become centered and still, and then trust the deepest intuition that arises.*
If you still doubt, consider this: human history is littered with examples of men who caused great harm while believing they were doing the right thing. If virtually everyone guilty of genocide, from Columbus to Hitler, thought he was doing the right thing, even thought that God was on his side, then we can be sure that many who committed lesser crimes also thought they were doing the right thing. Other people perform actions while believing them to be wrong, but think they are doing “what has to be done.” This too is a mental construct that leads to harm and suffering. Of course, you think you are different from those deluded people, that your mental constructs of what is right and wrong are somehow correct, though you allow that millions of others have been incorrect. But how would you know? They were similarly convinced. That is why in the Tantrik way, we release mental constructs of both good and bad, right and wrong, and try to carefully feel into the most beneficial course of action unique to a given situation. To be clear, this method does not dispense with thinking at all: on the contrary, we need the mind to deconstruct our conditioned ideas of right and wrong, and then we need it to gather data about the situation, and then we need it to notice our bias and correct for it in order to properly assess the data we have. Only after having done all that do we become quiet and still, clear and empty, and feel intuitively which course of action is the most beneficial. Your ability to do this is to some extent predicated on your meditation practice, because without the ability to become still, clear insight usually cannot arise.
As before, the stages Kshemarāja presents are also a map for practice towards liberation. We can move past our limiting mental constructs about action by first doing mindfulness practice in which we are fully present with our ordinary daily actions (walking, talking, eating, etc.). Then we contemplate the limitation of our agency by seeing that we are not in control of anything of significance. That is to say, no matter how you try, you cannot determine any outcome with certainty. Realizing this, you begin to surrender to reality as it is. To use a religious metaphor, you “do the best you can, and leave the rest to God.” That is, you contentedly accept that you cannot determine the final outcome, and that even your best effort often plays only a small part in that outcome. Upon attaining spiritual liberation, you finally realize that you can do everything that you need to do. This is what “omnipotence-in-plurality” means: the direct experience that you have the power to do whatever is actually required of you in a given situation, and the certain knowledge that whatever you cannot do (for whatever apparent reason) need not be done, at least not by you.
Apply these teachings, and watch deep and abiding happiness blossom in your life.
* This method only fails when mental illness of certain kinds is present. To forestall this possibility, we accept reflection from others. For example, if you are following this method, but consistently receive feedback from others that you are causing harm, I recommend that you seek professional help.
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This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Recognition Sutras (Mattamayura Press, 2017).