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The Absolute Reality

A Philosophical Thesis

How do we know that everything is the Supreme Reality, and not something different, like atoms in the void, or an external monotheistic God?

Two arguments

Although both approaches are in themsleves imperfect, they still reinforce each other.

Because the unio mystico could refer to any number of unitative realities and experiences, I will leave it for later, and here use a phenomenological, philosophical argument, expressed in terms of a series of propositions or statements or external link thought-experiments, which derive from each other.

It could be argued here that this does not represent a true philosophical enquiry, but rather a bias, and it would be better to start with no assumptions at all, leaving inquiry as a totally open process, with participants coming from different directions, as spiritual philosopher John Heron proposes in his cooperative inquiry technique. In this way, one avoids a controversial interpretation as a starting point.

My reply is simply this. The current thesis is not intended as an all-over and complete explanation. it is only one possible starting point, and there are many others. A truely integral (in the sense of the term as used by both Sri Aurobindo (pertaining to all elements of the being) and Ken Wilber (including everything)) approach would utilise many different methodologies and inquiries, and eacahj would find that enquiry that suited them best. Hence the current thesis is offered as one particular point of view and methodology.

1) Pure Awareness Is.

or: The one thing all of our experiences have in common is awareness (Consciousness), with the content constantly changing

This is the Cartesian method of external link Descartes, refined by Husserl and extended into the monistic dimension, by incorporation of Advaita Vedanta, by Moshe Kroy. For an excellent presentation of the latter's methodology here, see material (scroll down) on external link this page by Ken Wilber

So, in a nutshell - how can you be certain of anything. How can you be certain you aren't, say, a brain in a vat, and only think you are walking around in a body? (Descartes' "evil deceiver", which received new popularity with the Wachowski Brother's Matrix trilogy (see David Chalmers' excellent essay external link The Matrix as Metaphysics). How do you know what you experience is real, and not something implanted in your brain? Well you don't. You can't prove anything. So Descartes set out to external link doubt everything he could, to see if there was anything certain. In the end he realised he couldn't doubt his own mind - I think therefore I am. From there, by a convoluted and arbitrary method, he went on to restore the whole world he had previously doubted.

Descartes's procedure of radical doubt has been powerfully and plausibly critiqued by later thinkers. Perhaps the most eloquent such critic was the great American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who wrote:

"Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you shall begin by doubting everything, and says that there is only one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were 'as easy as lying.'....But in truth, there is but one state of mind from which you can "set out," namely, the very state of mind in which you actually find yourself at the time you do "set out"a state in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you cannot divest yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubt has nothing to do with any serious business."

(See external link What is Pragmatism for the entire passage, of which this is a part.)

Ultimately then, the classic cartesian approach doesn't cut it. Even if you know you are thinking, you still can't be sure you are imagining what you thinking. Also there are creatures - such as animals - that don't have subvocal-type rational-logical thoughts (or rather, don't have them to the degree we do). Also there are times when one doesn't think, during deep dreamless sleep perhaps, or during deep meditation.

Another difficulty with Descartes' thesis, is the problem of what is meant by "I"? How does one's concept of oneself ("I") correspond to reality? It could be argued that "I" is a linguistic construct which takes its meaning from the notion of "others", but the existence of "others" (and the world) is itself doubted in this method. The philosopher David Hume could not find this self to which the "I" supposedly refers. And Buddhism likewise denies any existence of a permananet self (anatta or anatman)

My response to these critiques is to adopt the more powerful tool of Buddhist and Vedantic method of introspection, as represented by Jnana Yoga (Vedanta) and Insight meditation (Buddhism). This moves the focus away from the arbitrary opinions of the surface mind or surface intellect, and definitions regarding the relative ego. Through awareness of one's consciousness, and contemplation of that consciousness itself, one can go beyond and deeper than thinking, feeling, and sensing. What lies behind all of those things? Answer - Pure Awareness (usually referred to in monistic/eastern literature as chit - translated as "consciousness", except that con-sciousness implies duality). Not awareness of anything. Just awareness, in itself. Complete non-dual consciousness.

The one thing that never ceases, and that cannot be denied, is that Pure Awareness, that field of consciounsness. It is not thought, and not consciousness, and not ego or self, it is what illuminates thought and consciousness, ego and self. And it can be confirmed through simple (albeit disciplined) techniques of meditation.

In practice, while still in the physical body, one never (except perhaps in moments of very deep meditation, and then only very fleetingly) comes across truly Pure Awareness, just as, as Peirce points out, one never comes across pure doubt. Unless in a state of transcendent moksha or nirvana, all awareness is awareness of something. So to be more precise one should say something like, The one thing all of our experiences have in common is awareness (Consciousness), with the content constantly changing.

From another perspective this is like saying that something exists, rather than not nothing (the mystery which Heidegger ponndered).

2) Not only that, but Pure Awareness (Consciousness, Being) is the only thing that ultimately is.

Here we switch to an even more abstract, platonic mode of reasoning. We have already discovered that the only thing we cannot deny or doubt is the bare fact of our own awaress, because who is doing the denying? That awareness, that consciousness, that something (pure Being or Sat in Vedantic literature) itself contains the thoughts of doubt and scepticism. No matter how radical and uncompromising the doubt and nihilistic scepticism, you cannot doubt that there is still the awareness of doubting.

But it can still be said that outside this subjective pure being or consciousness there are still other beings, or non-consciousness or non-being, and so on.

Can it be that all that exists is this pure Consciousness, this pure Being, as indicated by Vedantic philosdophy? That other than this, nothing else exists?

Certainly both common sense and empirical/phenomenological observation indicates that consciousness is always consciousness of something. Hume, of course, would have denied that there could be awareness without awareness of something, and most if not all exoerience (other than reports of mystical states) support this assertion.

That many things exist is simple empirical fact. G. E. Moore famously claimed to prove the existence of the external world by holding up his hands and saying: Here is one hand and here is another, therefore at least two external objects exist, therefore the external world exists. This is profound: NOTHING is more certain than the existence of those hands.

What has been shown so far is that to exist means to occur within one's awareness/consciousness/being. This gives only two possibilities: - all that exists is contained within awareness/consciousness/being (monism), or that there are things - e.g. rocks on other planets, that exist outside awareness/consciousness/being (dualism etc).

I submit that since nothing else can be proved but Awareness/Consciousness/Being and its contents, by the method of radical doubt we have to assume that Pure Awareness is the only thing that ultimately is. This is not to deny the world, as Moore has pointed out, the world exists), only to deny that the world exists apart from consciousness/awareness/being

3) Pure Awareness has no Limits or Boundaries, no Divisons or Parts, and does not Change

Because a limit or boundary means something (or nothing, as the case may be) on the other end, and we have seen that Pure Awareness/Consciousness/Being (and all its contents) is the only thing that is. No limits mean that Pure Awareness is Infinite (has no limit in space) and eternal (has no limit in time).

By the same token there can't be any divisions or parts, because divison means something else, or non-being, that divides being. There can't be any change either, because change would mean that Pure Awareness would have to become something else.

One reality, Infinite, eternal, changeless, and undivided. Starting to sound familiar?

4) Pure Awareness/Being/Consciousness equals The Absolute Reality

Things have by now become radically simple. By a method of philosophical reasoning plus meditative introspection, it is proposed that in all of reality, the only thing that is self-sufficient, is Pure Awareness/Being/Consciousness. And that more over, there is only one Pure Awareness, which constitutes your own experience, and that this is infinite, eternal, unchanging, and unitary.

And here is where it gets interesting. If Pure Awareness is the only thing that is, it must be the Unmanifest Godhead, The Absolute Reality, the First Principle, whatever term you wish to use, because it is there before anything else and instead of everything else. It is the only reality, and it has all the qualities that philosophers and theologians give to the abstract God or The Absolute Reality.

As Ken Wilber eloquently puts it (from the reference/link cited earlier)

"this pure I AM state is not hard to achieve but impossible to escape, because it is ever-present and can never really be doubted. You can never run from Spirit, because Spirit is the Runner. To put it very bluntly: Spirit is not hard to find but impossible to avoid: it is that which is looking at this page right now. Can't you feel That One? Why on earth do you keep looking for God when God is actually the Looker?
Ken Wilber, The Genius Descartes Gets a Postmodern Drubbing

Eastern monistic teachings actually use terms like Knower, Witness, Self (Atman), I-ness (aham) and so on to define this Pure Awareness. I just call it Absolute Reality, with the proviso that this Reality is essentially "I-ness", essentially pure subjectivity.

If one assumes, as pop-guru mysticism does, and Wilber's unfortuante terminology implies, that Pure Awareness, the Absolute Reality, the Observer, is the same as "God", the implication is of what western theologians call pantheism (or more correctly in this case panentheism). But in fact these two - the Absolute Reality and the God of Faith - are not the same. The God of religion and faith is a Person, a supernatural and often dualistically separate (even if intimately close) deity. But Pure Awareness/Being/Consciousness, non-dual "con-"sciousness, I-ness, is just that - or That (in Mahayana Buddhism Thusness - Tathata) - nothing more. Also, various strands of mysticism do destinguish between a Personal God With Form and an Absolute Reality Without Form. We'll get to the Personal (and hence complex, changing, etc) God later.

5) The Only Act of Pure Awareness is Self-Awareness

What we have so far is The Absolute Reality, which is of the nature of Pure Awareness. But what can Pure Awareness do? It can't do much at all, except be Awareness, Subjectively Experience. And because it is the Only Reality that Is, the only thing that Pure Awareness can experience or be aware of is Itself!

Therefore, the only Act of The Absolute Reality is Self-Awareness, Self-Experience.

Actually this is not a trivial as it seems. The Absolute Reality, the Supreme, God without Formless, whatever you want to call it, is infinite, eternal, beginningless and endless. Therefore it would have an infinitely large, infinitely wide, infinitely long, beginningless and endless Experience of Itself.

Now, were we to stop here we would have that form of popular Indian monistic mysticism called Advaita Vedanta, which affirms the identity of the Self (the Pure Awareness in which one's consciousness occurs) and the Absolute Reality (the Pure Awareness behind and as all things) or Nirguna Brahman (Brahman without qualities). As a form of radical acosmism, this leaves the relative reality of you and me and the world in a sort of limbo, empirically real to be sure (it is a popular misinterpretation that Advaita teaches the world is "illusion" - Advaita does no such thing), but at the absolute level neither real nor unreal, but simply "false" (mithya), and only appearing real through the activity of maya. The problem, known to the Tantrics, is how can Pure Awareness, which is inert, perform any act at all, including self-swareness? The answer is that pure or Bare Awareness in itself is only one side of Consciousness/Being, the other being Activity or Potemntiality. In Tantric philosophy, these two co-essential modes are termed Shibva and Shakti. And here I am following Kashmir Shaivism when I say that Shakti is (or is originally nothing but) Act of Pure Awareness is Self-Awareness.

6) Other beings exist; Solipsism is incorrect .

If we say nothing, other than Pure Awareness/consciousness/being, even ultimately exists, we can easily dismiss anything external to our center of awareness as implanted thought, imagining, dream, solipsistic delusion, and so on.. This being so, how can there be anything outside of the one awareness?

Moreover, since you can doubt other beings, and hence doubt the assumption that those beings have the same Pure Awareness, that means there is only one Pure Awareness/Consciousness/Being, which is yours, which is all that exists

external link Solipsism?

Not quite.

While to say there is only one Pure Awareness/Consciousness - in Vedantic philosophy the identity of Atman and Brahman - certainly seems like solipsism (as it asserts there is only one Self), this is not the same as solipsism. That is, solipsism says that only the relative center of consciousness is the only thing that exists. In otehr words, there is only one ego. Compare this with the Advaita Vedanta of the classic monist, Shankara. Here, the identity of Atman and Brahman is quite distinct from phenomenal existence. Unlike some Buddhists mentalists (the Yogachara school), and westren solipsists like *****, Shankara specifically affirmed the existence and reality of the empirical worrld, and hence completely denied the solispist position. One asserts that the limited surface consciousness is the only reality, the other that the Absolute Being and Consciousness is the only reality.

There is another disproof of solipsism, and that is empathy. If one is receptive, and sincere, one can feel the presence and the feelings of others, in a real way. These feelings appear as different to one's own thoughts. If the cosmos is a solipsistic creation of one's own mind, then one should feel nothing for the dreamlike craetyions in one's consciousness, because to feel something means to give them value and hence on some or all levels equality with oneself, which means that one is no longer the center of the universe. In this way, solispsism is refuted.

7) Phenomenal Reality is Real

Empathy shows that Solipsism doesn't work, hence other beings exist as centers in their own right (even if all beings are aspects of the the One Absolute).

And of course this brings upo back to the reality of the phenomenal world, about which everyone from Shankara to Hume and Moore agree on. After all, if the phenomenal world isnt real, why can't we walk through walls or whatever? Or, to cite the Zen tale of "The Stone Mind",

Hogen, a Chinese Zen teacher, lived alone in a small temple in the country. One day four traveling monks appeared and asked if they might make a fire in his yard to warm themselves.

While they were building the fire, Hogen heard them arguing about subjectivity and objectivity. He joined them and said: "There is a big stone. Do you consider it to be inside or outside your mind?"

One of the monks replied: "From the Buddhist viewpoint everything is an objectification of mind, so I would say that the stone is inside my mind."

"Your head must feel very heavy," observed Hogen, "if you are carrying around a stone like that in your mind."

Paul Reps Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Useful as acosmism may be in describing certain forms of mystical experience, it doesn't give a very satisfying explanation of the empirically real world of phenomenal reality, and indeed there are other experiences it doesn't describe. So let us press on.

8) Phenomenal Reality is derived from Absolute Reality

Because Absolute Reality is the only thing that is, it must in some way be the cause of Phenomenal Reality. Phenomenal Reality can't come from nothing, because nothing doesn't exist (see propositions 2 and 3). It can only come from something. And the only something is the Absolute Reality. So we have a connection. But how can something that doesn't change cause something that does?

9) Self-Awareness is the cause of everything (including Phenomenal Reality)

Because Pure Awareness is unchanging (proposition 3), it cannot of itself cause anything. Change and causation has to come from somewhere or something else. But the only "other" "thing" there is, is Pure Awareness's own Self-Awareness (proposition 5). Self-Awareness therefore has to be the original cause of everything.

This takes us beyond Kroy's Cartesian Advaitism, to the most powerful monistic rival of Advaita, which is the Trika Philosphy of Kashmir Shaivism.

The following diagram, slightly modified from external link Kashmir Shaivism versus Vedanta - A Synopsis, by Piyaray L. Raina, shows the difference between the Kashmir Shaivite position, in which the cosmos is integrally a part or transformation of the supreme absolute (Parmashiva) and Advaita Vedanta, in which the cosmos appears as an attachment (upadi)

Kashmir Shaivism and Vedanta

According to Advaita Vedanta, the Absolute Reality (nirguna brahman) which is the same as the Self (atman) and is the only reality, has no activity (kriya) at all. Although of the nature of satchitananda (Reality-"Con"sciousness-Bliss) it is in a sense inert and does not actually cause or create the universe. The universe and phenomenal reality are a superposition or misinterpretation of Brahman

But, we have seen, according to Kashmir Shaivism, and to Tantra in general, the Absolute Reality (paramashiva) has two aspects, the Pure Awareness aspect, which they call shiva, and which in itself is inert, and the creative activity of that Awareness, which they call shakti.

So one can say

10) Manifestation comes about through "Thinking"

"Thinking" isn't a very good word because it implies rational-verbal thinking. So it is used here simply as a metaphor.

When the Absolute Reality which is Pure Awareness (proposition 4) becomes Self-Aware/Experiences Itself (proposition 5), the result is, metaphorically, two realities, the Absolute in Itself and Its Awareness of Itself, which in Tantric lingo are called Shiva and Shakti. Actually there aren't really two realities, it is just Reality Reflecting or Experiencing Itself. But metaphorically, we could say that the Absolute, by "thinking", brings beings (phenomena) into existence. Or rather, those beings and phenomena are the "thought" (Self-Awaress) of the Absolute,. This is what Gnosticism says too, albeit in more baroque terminology. In the Apocryphon of John the coming into being of the first emanation is described thusly:

"He 'thought' His own likeness when He saw it in the pure Light-water that surrounded Him.  And His Thought [ennoia] became efficacious and made herself manifest..."

Technically, it is the Awareness of the Absolute (the original Shakti - para-shakti), rather than Absolute Pure Awareness in Itself, that does "the thinking". The Pure Awareness In Itself, as we have seen, cannot and does not think or act (proposition 3), it just is.

But what does it mean to say that the absolute reality, which (see point 3) has neither limits nor boundaries, neither divisons nor parts, and does not change, can have two aspects? And how does this affirm the reality of the phenomenal world, and avoid a theory of illusionism?

The answer is that while the Absolute, which is Being/Consciousness/Awareness, is indeed without parts, boundaries, etc, the elements it contains, in other words its Self-Awareness, do change. Going back to point 1, this is the differnec bewteen the pure consciousness or awareness in itself, and that which it is conscious of. Except originally this latter was still unitary, it was a single cosmic and supra-cosmic, transcendent, unity of all the diverse elements and multiplicity in a single "Thought in the Mind of God", and the "Thought" is Itself the original Shakti or self-reflection or self-manifestation of teh Absolute.

Moreover, I put the word "thought" in inverted commas to show that this is only a metaphor; we are not deal9ing with something as fleeting and ephemeral as the thoughts of the physical mind! It is rather the total power and spontaneous Will of the Absolute. To quote the opening verse of the Kashmir Shaivite text the Pratyabhijnahrdayam:

The absolute Citi out of it's own free will is the cause of the Siddhi (emanation, maintenance, and withdrawal) of the universe.

Cit or chit is Pure Awareness, the -i suffix refers to female gender. In Tantric symbolism and icongraphy Shiva (which is usually associated with chit) is male and Shakti is female. So Citi here means the original unitary absolute Awareness and its activity.

Moreover this occurs through absolute free will, Absolute Sovereignty or Freedom of Will, the unimpeded activity of the Divine Will [Jaideva Singh, Introduction, Link to Amazon com Pratyabhijnahrdayam : The Secret of Self-recognition, p.17]

The further we go from the original proof of Pure Awareness, the more Creation comes into play, the more the chain of logical determinism breaks down. We are substituting philosophy for esotericism and mysticism

11) Causality is through Emanation

Thge "Thought of God", the "Divine Will", the original Manifestation (point 10, above) is the cause, the logos, of everything that follows; of all Creation in other words. One might still argue: if the Absolute Pure Awareness in itself is changeless and doesnt do or generate anything, how does Its Self-Awareness come about? And what does it mean for the former to cause the latter, and the latter to cause the cosmos? Causation (or derivation) is a category we use to link two aspects of the phenomenal world - the swinging bat and the flying baseball, for example How could this apply to different kinds of reality?

This is where emanation comes in.

I argue for the of the Emanation hypothesis on two grounds: firstly it is a central element in much of the "perennial philosophy" (see also The emanationist worldview), and secondly it provides the only explanation for how things came to be that is not nonsensical (craetio ex hihilo) or reductionist. Assuming then that emanation is a fact (much as it contradicts the current physicalist consensus paradigm of the secular West), a number of specific ontological laws or principles would seem to follow.  These are listed as follows:

Principle of Authentic Reality
Principle of Distinct Hypostases
Principle of Qualitativeness
Principle of Downward Causation
Principle of nondifferentiated ground
Principle of non-diminishment
Principle of Reflection
Principle of Proximity
Principle of Fractalisation

In no way should the above be considered a definitive statement or final explanation. These principles are suggested soley to encourage further thought and debate. We have a long way to go before a truely axiomatic integral theory of everything can be formulated.

One might say that originally and ultimately, emanation is the activity of the Absolute Self-Awareness, and the latter the constant and changeless effect of the Absolute In Itself, Pure Awareness, just as, according to Plotinus, the outpouring or emanation of being is the constant effect and property of the One

And from that original Emanation proicess, all the myraid thiongs of existence and reality come about.

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text content by M.Alan Kazlev
updated an incorporating comments by Jay Kinney and Joseph Dormer
this page uploaded 10 July 2004, last modified 1 July 2005