Word Clouds and Realities
Our teacher sometimes quoted the last lines of the verses of the late Victorian poet, Henley:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
When we hear these words, providing we are reasonably comfortable, there is a tendency to sit back in the stall, so to speak, and clap ones hands and cry, “Bravo! Magnificent defiance of death!” But, of course, we don’t take it as real. He has long been dead. And the cynic says, “He’s a puppy, barking bravely in front of a steamroller. Was he the master of his fate?”
When our teacher quoted them these were not to be word clouds; sometimes magnificent and splendid, sometimes dark and grey – they were realities. It is essential that when we hear the holy texts, they should not become beautiful, inspiring poems without an actual reality. This applies in many branches; truth can become merely theory. The great scientist Eddington, as long ago as 1927, wrote a famous book: The Nature of the Physical World, which gave the example of two tables. One is the substantial table on which we rest our papers and arms, and the other:
“My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges, rushing about with great speed. But their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself.”
That is supposed to be the reality of the table – the scientific reality of it. All of the interesting features for us, such as its colour, its hardness, its steadiness and its purpose, are all projections of the human mind through the sense organs, and interpreted by the brain. But scientists themselves cannot always remember that it is really a scientific table. The great philosopher of science, [Bertrand Russell] when it was put to him that consciousness is always present whenever we speak of reality, said, “Oh no! I can easily imagine the time when earth was simply a mass of blazing rocks and no consciousness whatever.” He didn’t remember that, on his own theory, blazing rocks are projections of the human mind on to largely empty space, with electrons whirling about. So all that could be there would be masses of configurations of empty spaces, which, if a human consciousness were there, would look like blazing rocks. He did not see that. In other words, although he was a well-known philosopher of science he could not actually remember, when it came to the point, about his own theory. In the same way, we are told, that it [a spiritual truth] must not degenerate into theory which is not in fact taken in by us but which remains a mere theory.
Now, the yoga philosophy is that the universe is a superimposition – an illusory superimposition projected by the Absolute. If it is taken as real, that forms Ignorance which prevents us from seeing the Absolute. To that extent it is an illusion.
Illusions are of two kinds, and it is quite important to remember the distinction between them. One of them has no actual basis and the other has a basis of substratum. For no actual basis, think of Father Christmas. This is a concept, an idea, which we teach to very small children to teach the virtues of generosity and kindness and [to give] a little thrill of excitement. And the reality of Father Christmas is spoken of. He comes down – well, he doesn’t come down the chimney now – there aren’t chimneys – he probably comes down the aerial, but it [the idea] teaches generosity and goodwill, and it has done. My father told me that in World War I the British and German soldiers [who were brought up with the idea that Christmas Day was a time of goodwill] wouldn’t shoot at each other on Christmas Day. But, nevertheless, it is an illusion, and when the children grow up they are told, or they find out for themselves, that there is no Father Christmas. The illusion is imposed; it has a purpose, but then it is withdrawn. This is one kind of illusion. There is no basis – Father Christmas could be short and fat, he could be tall and thin, he could have blue boots. At one time he was thought to have a sledge with reindeer, riding about the clouds. All these things could be put on and taken off at will.
There is another kind of illusion. The classical example is given when you see in a half-light a rope on the ground. Because your lamp is moving as you move, the shadow of the rope moves and seems to be a snake. Now that is an illusion of a snake, which is really only a rope, but it has a substratum. If the rope has a coil in it, then the snake you see has a coil in it, and there is a correspondence – it is not just a free fantasy like Father Christmas.
But it is easy to confuse these two kinds of illusions. One has no substratum, which can be put on [added to] and taken off at one’s will and the other one with a substratum. Now, one of the methods of teaching by Shankaracharya is said to be superimposition – putting on things which are false, imaginary and fantastic ideas [fanciful] onto the Absolute, and then removing them, which means liberation. As an example of this, here is a quote from a very reputable text book on Advaita and Vedanta:
‘We superimpose qualities and relations such as omniscience, omnipotence, causality etc. on the Absolute as they help us to understand it to start with. This is the stage of superimposition. On closer examination, we find that the Absolute, which is super-sensuous, is free from qualities and relations, and so we negate it of all qualities and relations. This is the stage of negation.’
P.G.Wodehouse used to write comic stories about the perfect manservant, Jeeves, who was much better educated and far more intelligent than his master, the amiable chump Bertie Wooster. On one occasion they are talking, and Wooster says, “Jeeves, as that chappie said, ‘A man is a man you know, in spite of everything.’” Jeeves coughs, and Bertie looks up, saying, “Well, what is it Jeeves?” Jeeves replies, “It is the poet Burns, sir.” “Expunge the poet Burns, Jeeves, from the tablet of your mind, Jeeves”. And Jeeves answers, “Very good, sir.”
In a little bit the same way, we are told to negate the whole superimposition of the world, all its pain, all its changes – we [are] just [to] negate it. “Very good, sir”. But it doesn’t happen. Jeeves doesn’t forget the poet Burns, but he says: ‘Very good, sir.’ We can easily get into the idea of mere theory, as though Vedanta was simply intellectual concepts, superimposing concepts and then taking them off again at will. But it is not so. The theories may be propounded, but they cannot actually be lived through, even though the Vedanta is supported by very carefully reasoned arguments and very fine analysis of states of consciousness, to which full assent is given. Yes, it is proved, and yet it cannot be taken in. Well, if it is proved, and we know it is proved and we accept it, how is it that it is not taken in? I’ll give an example.
A newly rich businessman wanted to show off his new house, so he invited a host of fifty odd guests, with the occasion being his sister’s return from abroad. She had married an astronomer, and he was going to meet some of her friends. In the course of conversation, it turned out that this astronomer was also interested in astrology. He said, “I think there is something there. It is full of superstitions, of course, but I think something is there and I and a few scientific friends are studying it. The host said aggressively, ” No! How can you call yourself a scientist if you study astrology? You will never make exact predictions. It is all about this likelihood is possible [of this or that happening] and then when it does not turn up then there are excuses.” The astronomer/astrologer got a bit nettled and said, “Well, it is quite true that astrology deals mostly in tendencies, which are difficult to confirm, but there are occasions, such as in a group like this, where it is possible to make an exact prediction, then and there.” The host sneered, and said’ “Oh yes, and I suppose, that this not one of those occasions, unfortunately.” The astronomer said, “Well, as matter a fact, it is. In our astrology, people born on the same birthday have what we call a birthday bond, and I sense that there is one here. As you are know, I’ve come from abroad and I don’t know any of these people. I don’t know who they are, but I know that there are two people here who have a birthday bond. What do you think is the likelihood of that happening by chance?” The host looked round and said, “Well, there are about 50 people here and 365 days in a year…. So I think it could happen about 1 in 7.” The astronomer said, “Well now, I will make a definite prediction that it is so.”
The host was delighted. He put two chairs in the middle of the room, and the people were to file through the chairs and as they went between the chairs, they would call out their birthdays. When about the eleventh person went through and said, “September 3rd”, somebody spoke up from the crowd, still to go through, ” Yes, I am September 3rd [too].” The host said, “Oh, that’s just a fluke,” and the astronomer/astrologer said, “It‘s not a fluke. I predicted it, didn’t I?” And the host said, “Well, it’s a fluke that you predicted a fluke,” so the other man said, “Do you remember what you said about finding excuses when you’re wrong?” So the subject was changed.
There was a mathematician at the party, and he said to the astronomer, “You were on to a pretty good thing there. It’s almost certain [to happen]. You’re a mathematician, too?” He said,”Yes.”
[A sheet on a board, representing a calendar is displayed]. The white squares are the calendar of the year: 365 days and these little black dots are the 50 people. If at random those dots were scattered about by a blind person, what is the likelihood that two of them will fall in the same box? It seems pretty small. If they were spread out evenly, each dot would have seven days, seven boxes, to go into, and by the law of averages they ought to be spread out fairly evenly, although there will be a few irregularities. But to say that it is certain that two of them will land in the same box seems unbelievable. Yet there is mathematical proof that it is so. We can go back to our school mathematics, and with labour, and perhaps the help of a mathematician, establish the proof that it must be so: 97% of the time two of the black dots will land in the same box. Now we can read through the proof and be absolutely convinced, yet common sense tells us ‘no’.
How is that going to be changed? It is changed in one way: we do an experiment. I got hold of ‘Who’s Who’, which gives the birthdays, not merely years of birth, but the birthday of everyone in it, and took samples of the entries. The first six or seven names listed were taken from each alphabetical section, and I ended up with three groups of fifty. I then checked them over to see if there were any pairs born on the same day. In the first group of fifty there was one pair, born on April 6, but in the next group there were four: March 13, July 11, June 14, and November 15. After that, my instinctive inability to believe it disappeared because the experiment confirmed it.
In the same vein, in yoga we have theories, and they can be proved by very careful reasoning and analysis. Yet, the mind does not take them in.
But, when they are verified, partially at least by experiment, then the resistance of the mind is overcome and they can be accepted. It must not be merely theory. If it is merely theory, it will never have any depth to it. We shall be told, “You are that”, and we shall say, “Yes, I can say without any hesitation I am… oh, it’s not quite clear… oh! Brahman! I am Brahman! I am fear….(turns the page)…less and immortal!’ No, that is merely theory. It has to be something which is true by experience, not simply a theory. Well, how are these things brought about? If we look at some of the actual cases given in the Upanishads [we will be given an indication].
In the Upanishad, the boy [Bhrigu] goes to his father, who is a sage, and he says, ” Revered sir, Father, teach me Brahman.” He has already done considerable study, and he knows about Brahman, and the desire for liberation – freedom – has risen in him.
The father gives him 5 ‘doors’ – the body made of food, vital energy, ear, eye, mind. These are doors, he says. We have to go through the door, not stand in front of it, but go through it . [ We go through the doors by investigating deeply That which the body, vital energy, ear, eye and mind cannot apprehend but by whose power each is enabled to function]. Then he says to him, “That from which the whole universe has come forth, by which it is sustained, into whom it is finally dissolved”. This is the definition of Brahman. But he doesn’t say, “Now you know.” He says, “Seek to know That, try to know That”. The young disciple sits down and practises tapas, which literally means ‘austerity’.
In the Gita there are three kinds of tapas: the austerity of the body (which is simplicity of life, a certain pleasantness, a certain uprightness, and honesty – not being pleasant to peoples’ faces and then stabbing them in the back; control of the senses). Then there is the austerity of speech, which consists of saying what is true and useful, pleasantly uttered and not provoking people. But the highest austerity is the austerity of the mind, which is inner calmness, and finally silence. Shankara, in his commentary to the Upanishad, says that the highest form of tapas means meditation, and he defines it as one-pointedness and samadhi, and he says that this is the method by which Brahman is known and twice he says this is the only method.
The disciple practices meditation and he has an experience. He sees the whole world consisting of physical things but he is not satisfied and goes back to his father and says, “Teach me Brahman”. The father does not give him any instruction but says, “Meditate, for meditation is the way of knowing Brahman”. He meditates again and he has an experience of the world as energy. Again he goes to his father and his father does not confirm or deny it. He says “Teach me” but the father says, “Meditate, for meditation is the means of knowing Brahman”. Then it comes to Intelligence and finally it comes to Bliss. The father does not confirm it but when he has reached this realisation the Atman of the disciple and the Atman of the teacher are one. There is no need to speak. As one Christian mystic said, “First you will speak to God. Then God will speak to you. Finally, neither of you will need to utter a word”. Again, there is a lost Upanishad which Shankara quotes from. V…. went to the teacher and questioned him, asking about Brahman. Again, he must have done a lot of discipline to have heard of Brahman and to have the desire for liberation. The teacher said, “Learn Brahman, O friend”. Then he [the disciple] said, “Teach me” but the teacher sat silent and he [the disciple] said again, ‘Teach me”. The teacher sat silent. He asked again, “Teach me”. The teacher said, “I do teach you but you do not understand. Silent is this Self”. It was a demonstration of the Absolute, beyond words, beyond attributes. Where the teacher was, there was a clear blue sky with no word clouds. Silent is this Self.
In another Upanishad [Chandogya}, Satyakama comes for initiation and he demonstrates his love of truth and the teacher gives him a single initiation and sends him away with a herd of cows to look after them. And he thinks I will come back when there are a thousand of them and he is there for several years. So he has this one initiation in which the truth has been spoken to him. He lives with that, constantly in service of his teacher. Swami Rama Tirtha, too, it is said, achieved the whole path on a single initiation because there was so much intensity behind it. When the cows become a thousand, nature begins to speak to the disciple. The bull of the herd declares to him the glory of Brahman. Then a swan declares to him the infinity of Brahman. A bird declares to him the light [of Brahman.] There is another declaration and then he takes the herd back and when he comes back the teacher looks at him and says, ” Satyakama, you shine like one who knows Brahman. Who has been teaching you?” He says, “Not men. But I desire to hear this all from you, as my teacher”. Then the teacher taught him the same things, – the Upanishads said they were exactly the same – but he followed the tradition that it should be handed on through teacher to disciple.
These are examples given. It is the intensity of the enquiry but the teacher is always there and it is in the presence of the teacher, even though he may be at a distance which enables the transformation to take place. It is not unknown in other traditions. In Buddhism there is a tradition that a learned Brahmin who was dissatisfied – he only knew ritualism but he was very learned in the sacrificial skills – came to the Buddha and he said, “What do you teach?” And the Buddha said nothing. He sat there in silence. The Brahmin stood – great Brahmin – then he bowed and he went away satisfied. Ananda, who was Buddha’s attendant – and it was always popularly supposed that because he was the Buddha’s attendant he must be full of the wisdom of the Buddha and actually it was not so; he was the only disciple who did not attain realisation in the Buddha’s lifetime, but only afterwards – Ananda said to the Buddha, “What did he get? You did not tell him anything”. The Buddha is said to have replied, “The good horse goes at even the shadow of the whip”.
The Gita has a definite programme of karma yoga, which is the lower form of tapas, and then it says he [the spiritual aspirant] has to try to discover the witness Self. In the thirteenth chapter, which is one of the chapters on knowledge, the field is described. “This body is the field. He who knows it is called the field-knower”. This does not mean that part of our mind looks at the other part of our mind and thinks, oh well I know. There is something within us which is quite separate from the field which is defined as the physical elements of the body, as the mind, as the senses, as pleasure, pain, desire, aversion, firmness, steadiness. All those things are the field. There is something which is apart from them. Shankara, in later verses of the chapter, says that it is as different from them as the pith of a reed is from the outer casing and it must be separated from them. This is a very old Upanishadic example. It is quite separate and this is what must be first realised and it is first realised in the body. There are many verses in the Gita which refer to this – the Great Lord seated in the body. “He, self-controlled, practising Yoga, becomes seated in the nine-gated body, neither acting nor causing to act”. Something quite independent. And in the thirteenth chapter of the Gita it will say, again and again, the Supreme Lord is Lord of the universe but he is also seated in this body. The first realisation, Shankara says in chapter 8, is that the separate Self is known in the body. There is something in the body which is different from body and mind, quite different, and this he must try to find in meditation. The meditations first given are on the Lord, the external Lord, as external as supporting the whole universe, creating and maintaining it, and this purifies and calms the mind then the attention is turned within to try to find pratyatman, the separate inmost Self. This is the first step, Shankara says. It is first known as a glimpse of a witness but still there is a duality. It is within the body, it is witnessing the body and the world but in the end, in the fulfilment, it turns out to be the universal Self. All the attributions and all the restrictions drop off. But first of all it has to be known and our teacher said that it can be known first as something within us, which when we are frightened, when we are shivering in fear there is something within us which is not shivering, when we are blazing with anger, there is something within us which is not angry and he said to try to turn, first in little things – when we are upset by something, know that there is something within us which is independent and separate, unmoved, cannot be touched. When there is a storm there is something within us that is free from the storm. When there is a torrent of abuse, as our teacher said, there is something within which is not touched by the torrent. To try to find, have experience of that separate Self, first in meditation and to some extent, and, he said, as much as possible to revive the awareness, the consciousness of it in daily life. Still to act, but to know that there is something within us which is independent. So it means, first of all, to attain some sort of mastery of the inner apparatus by identifying the witness Self. When this is known, it says, his longings cease, his desires and the disturbances cease. Then, as the Gita says he can act efficiently for the first time because his actions are not blurred and obstructed. So, first of all, we have to become captain of the soul. And then what happens? The field-knower is finally found to be the universal Lord. Then he is everything. He is the purpose. The substratum of the illusion has a purpose. There is a correspondence between the substratum and the illusion. It is not something arbitrary like Father Christmas. There is a correspondence and that correspondence is the purpose of the Lord through Maya. Then He becomes the Lord of Maya. Then he is not the master of Fate, but he is Fate himself. Our teacher quoted those lines: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” To him these were not word clouds. It was a working programme.
© Trevor Leggett