by A. H. Almaas, March 2013
[This contemplation was written in response to a blog discussion about part 1 of the contemplation.]
I am quite heartened by the many meaningful responses to the first contemplation, Missed Opportunities, and I am especially glad that many are interested in dialogue and in interaction with each other. Each has a contribution to make, and I appreciate it more when I see a conversation going on with each other, not just with me.
I notice that the part of the contemplation around death and dying, and discussing HHDL’s views as related to the Tibetan view of death and dying, has received the most interest. It seems many are interested in the question of death, the dying process and what happens after death, which is natural. It was, however, not my intention to address that but to open the question of what it can be instead of simply accepting a well known authoritative text or teaching. I intended to point to the importance of liberating our mind, heart and consciousness from adherence to any established view in exploring any matter, and I used the question of the bardo as an example – to be open but not to reject the established teachings. The question of death and the afterlife can be a topic for a future contemplation. Furthermore, the question of what happens after death is meaningless if we do not have a thorough understanding of individual consciousness. Since there will not be a physical body, what will give consciousness particular experience and perception?
The primary import of the present contemplation is to point out the significance of both recognizing and experiencing the individual consciousness, whether we refer to it as soul, stream of consciousness, or subtle continuum of awareness. One reason I think it is important to recognize and know this as much as possible is the prevalence these days of the nondual view of reality, and how many spiritual teachers are calling themselves, or being called, nondual teachers. Even though the nondual condition is significant and does indicate true awakening, it is not sufficient on its own to penetrate the secrets of individual consciousness. In other words, abiding in the nondual condition we might not see any individual consciousness, and hence cannot investigate and understand its significance..
However, being in the nondual condition whether as unity of being, dharmakaya, or pure formless consciousness, there is individual consciousness implicit in the experience. There will be no experience, nondual or otherwise, if it was not for the individual consciousness. What I mean is that there is someone experiencing the nondual consciousness, or the dharmakaya, even though the experience does not have this in any explicit way. Even if we experience ourselves as the formless boundless consciousness or empty awareness, we cannot neglect the fact that there is a local perception of phenomena. What accounts for this local perception, and what accounts for the first personal givenness of the realization? What accounts for the fact that the realization is yours, and not of your friend or cousin?
One way of understanding this is to recognize that even when we are realized as pure awareness or consciousness, oceanic or boundless, transcendent to manifestation or inseparable from it, such realization or experience is occurring through an individual consciousness. It is coming through such individual consciousness; not happening in the abstract or floating on its own. In such experience or realization, the individual consciousness is not foreground, and we do not feel as an individual, but the fact that perception is still located in some environment plus that it is first personally given- meaning it is not happening this way to others - points to the importance of recognizing that there is an individual consciousness present in such experience, but we can say it is implicit, present in a virtual or invisible manner.
We need to hold different views simultaneously to have a more thorough understanding of individual consciousness. We need to hold the nondual or unitive view, but we also need to hold the individual view, and possibly more views. In the Diamond Approach, we have a quite detailed understanding of the individual consciousness. I refer to it as soul, but there is the recognition that it is not an individual entity, but rather a stream of consciousness, a flow of experience. There is no claim that the Diamond Approach has a complete understanding of individual consciousness, rather there is the recognition that many teachings have a good understanding sufficient for the particular teaching. Each teaching has its own understanding and knowledge of the soul, frequently overlapping with other teachings, but each has a unique contribution and flavor. The Sufis have the seven stages of the soul, as the seven stages of the Nafs, culminating in the clarified and pure soul. The Kabbalah has the different levels of soul, like nevesh, ruah, neshama and so on. But these are the outlines of these teachings about soul and obviously there is a great deal of knowledge in each of these traditions about the states and conditions of the soul. The same with the Christian tradition, where soul is quite significant, and the inner journey is explicitly stated as the journey of the soul. I think each of these traditions gives a wonderful understanding of the soul, and it will be a mistake to take any of them as complete on its own, or using it to negate the others. The knowledge of the soul is infinite and, hence, no teaching can encompass it.
These ancient and established Western mystical traditions tend not to focus on pointing out the importance of the soul because it is taken for granted, and the audience of these teaching had taken it for granted, at least in older times. Our times are different, especially for the more secular segments of the population. Eastern teachings are much more known and available, and their views sometimes become so prevalent that they drown out the knowledge of the soul by the Western traditions, at least in the minds of many people.
I had written in the contemplation how the Buddhist tradition participates in contributing to the understanding of the soul, but refers to it as a continuum of subtle consciousness or awareness. Buddhism is wary about taking such a continuum as an individual entity, which I believe is a justifiable caution. Developing the view of a stream of consciousness, and then that of a subtle continuum of clear light, began with the Yogachara school of Mahayana Buddhism, and became much more established in the higher tantras of Vajrayana. Many of the tantric methods utilize this knowledge in their practices, and it is implicit in the teaching of the Bardo Thodel about after death stream of experiences.
Yet, we can ask about other Buddhist schools. How does Zen deal with this question, and also how does Theravada in its various streams view it?
Many of the Hindu schools contain a knowledge of the soul, sometimes referred to as jiva, jivatman, or atman, depending on the school. But some of the nondual schools tend to think of it only as an individual entity, which is seen as a delusion. For instance, some of the Vedanta nondual schools think of the soul, or individual consciousness, as a convenient illusion needed for the boundless pure consciousness to experience life. I wonder why does something as sublime as pure transcendent consciousness require an illusion for it to experience and live life?!
What I want to focus on here is actually something else, which is the nature of the stream or continuum of consciousness. It is a stream, a flow, and hence not an individual self-existing entity. It is not separate from the boundless consciousness or pure awareness but an expression of it, an expression of it that is privileged by the capacity to function as an organ of experience for the formless or boundless consciousness. There is a great deal of subtlety here, for even when we say it is not an entity but a stream, we can reify it and also reify other concepts in the process. The notion of stream or continuum conjures up the notion of time. We tend to think of a stream of experience as moving from past to present to future. The stream of consciousness can dispose us to view it as a river flowing in a riverbed, the riverbed of time.
So the question of time is important here, and it is not a simple matter to understand. Nondual experience, or realization of the Dharmakaya, that seems to transcend time, does not fully address the question of time, and hence does not fully penetrate the secrets of individual consciousness. A better approximation than a stream is to think of individual consciousness as a fountain of consciousness, coming up with a continuity of experience. Better still, we can think of it as an unfolding consciousness whose unfoldment is the various perceptions we have, whether dual, nondual or otherwise.
The question of the nature of time is important also for understanding what happens after death. Does the sense of time continue the way we experience it in physical life? And to think there is only timelessness does not address the fact that there is perception, and a flow of perception, and how to account for that.
There is also nonlocal realization, different from nondual and dual realization of reality. By nonlocal, which I usually refer to as unilocal, I mean the experiential recognition that each point of time and space contains all points of time and space. Reality is more of a hologram than simply the radiance of awareness. Radiance of awareness is not negated, but what dominates the realization is the mystery of how each particular is related to other particulars, including the relation to the awareness or its emptiness.
Our sense of time is stretched here, and our notion of a stream of consciousness or continuum of awareness will need to be revaluated. What is individual consciousness from the perspective of nonlocal realization, and does it still have a meaning? I am positing this question only to emphasize that there is a great deal to understand before we believe we have gotten what reality is, or what individual consciousness is. I can bring up other modes of realization to stretch our horizons, but I think it is clear that the main idea is that openness to the mysteries of reality is more of a virtue than certainty about knowing it – and not to forget that the knowledge of the soul is infinite, and hence inexhaustible.
Added 5/29/2014: I have given the view of totality as it has developed in the Diamond Approach, but not as the answer to the question about what the ultimate is. It is simply one contribution to the contemplation. It is my wish that others will contribute their findings, their insights. I have shown one way of answering the question about ultimates, but I don’t see it as the only possible answer. I am interested in seeing what the reader thinks of the proposal I have given and also interested in hearing what the reader proposes as a solution. I would like to invite readers from the various teachings, to see what other teachings do with such a question. I am also interested in independent researchers and their findings regarding this question of ultimates. Maybe there are responses and views similar to what I proposed, or very different. In either case, the discussion and dialogue is what interests me, not a final answer.