continued from Part 1
The paradoxical meeting between eastern mystical insight and modern physics springs from the fact that both disciplines are thoroughly empirical. One investigates the inner world, the other the outer physical universe. Both are experimental, both observe with clinical detachment. Where they are could to meet is when physics comes close to the fundamental nature of reality, to consciousness. This meeting would not have been possible a hundred years ago when physical science held dogmatically a far more mechanistic and substantial view of the material world, a view that is still quiet useful as far as our everyday life is concerned by which is no longer appropriate at the microcosmic level where problems of consciousness intrude unceasingly. The phenomena analysed by quantum physics are elements in a string of processes, and what binds them together lies in the observer's mind. The fundamental unity of all things and events at that level is therefore bound to include consciousness.
It becomes increasingly clear that both approaches to ultimate Reality are complementary rather than opposite and antagonistic.
What, then, is the major characteristic of the mystical approach? The East seems to have understood long ago what Henri Bergson brilliantly demonstrated. That is, that man's mind, as it evolved over hundreds of years, is cast in an essentially utilitarian mould. His mental functions are atavistically geared to practical action, rather than abstract thought about ultimates. The brain analyses perceptions and selects the actions to be accomplished. It is not, by nature, intended to deal with pure, non-utilitarian knowledge. The illusion that the rational intellect could reach some kind of ultimate metaphysical truth was never completely discarded in the West. It was never seriously considered in the East where the problem has always been to still and over - come the mind through appropriate techniques of meditation and contemplation, to shed an intuitive trans-rational light on the depths of the soul and let the Self disclose itself. Briefly, the various eastern techniques aim at controlling and eventually stopping the flow of thoughts with the assistance of physiological processes, bodily postures and breath control, according to the hallowed Tibetan saying: "Breath is the courser and thought the rider."
The fundamental dichotomy between East and West is the result of a sharp cleavage between two forms of consciousness which took place some four thousand years ago. In the Sumerian and Babylonian civilisations, the respective spheres of man and higher divinity began to split away from one another. The king no longer partakes of the divine; he is nothing but the humble priest of a totally transcendental deity, and the religious problem therefore becomes one of relationship rather than identification between man and an external God. This sharp separation triggered a longing for the restoration of the broken connection between the human and divine spheres. The end result, many centuries later, was the birth of the notion of history as a spiritually meaningful progression in which the will of God reveals itself - history as a linear development with a temporal direction, and without any possibility of recurrence. This is a complete break with the previous cyclical concepts of time which were geared to the natural cycles of the seasons. The cosmic process appears now as a directional unfolding with a once-and-for-all Creation, followed by a Fall and a struggle to overcome the Fall and reach Redemption. The world becomes the dramatic battlefield of a mighty struggle between the powers of good and evil, light and darkness - a vision that found its fullest expression in Zoroastrian) Persia and Israel. Thus, the West looked for what theologian Paul Tillich calls the "new being" in the historical process itself rather than beyond it.
All this is foreign to the concepts of the East where the ever-recurring cyclical view, either historical as in China, or transhistorical as in India, prevails. The process of history has no spiritual significance whatsoever. There is no temporal tension here, no historical struggle between good and evil, just a natural and inevitable alternance between two complementary poles, as between day and night. Man's spiritual problem is not relationship with the divine but identification with it. Man is assumed to be divine in essence; his main problem is therefore to realise this identification by peeling off the veils of illusion, which separate him from his true divine being. Phrased another way, the problem is to eliminate mere appearance, to which the individual ego belongs, and which is due to the illusion bred by ignorance, in order to retrieve one's fundamental identity, one's divine Self.
This, of course, has great bearing on the problem of ultimate Reality. From the first, Greece's Ionian philosophers took the major step of sharply dissociating the subjective from the objective - the subjective being viewed as illusory. Objective thinking made its first decisive appearance in Greek pre-Socratic philosophy; and the process of objectification can best be understood by looking at the rare surviving fragments of Heraclitus of Ephesus. Until then, as a legacy of the magic mind, dream-pictures were considered to be at least as real as mental activity in the waking-state. In other words, the unconscious was granted at least as high a degree of reality. This was turned upside down by Heraclitus:
"It is therefore necessary to follow the common. But while reason is common, the majority live as though they had a private insight of their own ... those who speak with a sound mind must hold fast to what is common to all ... The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own."
In Indian thought, the process was reversed; the objective, that is, the world of appearances, maya, is ultimately a phantasm (as modern physics tells us), whereas the subjective, that is, consciousness, is the real world.
The Greeks began to see the external world as full of detached, autonomous objects, and linked these objects with one another intellectually, binding them together into logically coherent systems of objective relationships according to strict physical laws. They conceived the ultimate object of the material world to be the atom, the Greek atomos signifying "indivisible", that is, the irreducible building block of the physical universe. In the process, they came to rely increasingly on the rational intellect and on discursive thought, deemed fit to understand and explain everything in the phenomenal world and beyond. With Plato, for instance, the process of objectification reaches beyond the mere material world to postulate a supra-physical order of objectified ideas and geometrical concepts, of which physical things are imperfect replicas.
Hence, for thousands of years, all the vain efforts of the western mind to adduce rational proofs of the existence of an objectified God as First Cause, as Deus ex Machina. The East never had any need for this; in fact it largely turned its back on the subject, without cutting it off sharply from its emotional links with the non-subject surrounding or underlying it.
As a result, whereas western philosophies are philosophies of strict intellectual information, eastern philosophies are philosophies of total transformation, leading to a form of human wholeness that is unreachable in the western context. To the easterner, religion is an awareness of ultimate Reality, not an intellectual theory. It is psychology and method rather than theology and dogma. So that while the westerner advances from thought to thought, from abstract concept to abstract concept, deducing, inducing, differentiation, integrating, analysing, the easterner advances from one subjective condition to another. The westerner focuses on the objects of consciousness, the easterner on consciousness itself. Eastern philosophies are basically empirical descriptions of the possible evolution of man from one level of consciousness to higher ones. To sum up, the westerner aims at clear thought, the easterner at pure consciousness.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the monuments of Indian literature, gives us a perfect example of this predominance of the subjective outlook. This "Song of the Blessed" depicts the battlefield of Kurukshetra where two armies stand face to face. One of the commanders, Arjuna, drives his war chariot between the lines and, horrified at the thought of the forthcoming slaughter, wants to call off the battle. Lord Krishna, who assumes temporarily the role of charioteer and incarnates divine wisdom, urges him to fight regardless of the objective consequences, and his speech is the essence of the Gita's message. Arjuna must fight with serenity and total detachment because it is his duty as a professional warrior, because he is bound by the Karma of his past and has to go inexorably through the mysterious labyrinth of his appointed duties, however evil the consequences may seem to others. The immediate message: there is no such thing as objective reality. And the ultimate message:
"Give thought to nothing but the act, never to its fruits ... For him who achieves inward detachment, neither good nor evil exists any longer here below."
The western outlook has always included a full acceptance of an objective reality, implying the absolute dissociation of every individual human being from every other, and the equally absolute dissociation of all human beings from the higher divinity. Furthermore, there was in the West, until the advent of psychoanalysis, no conscious problem of self-identification, of rediscovering one's deeper layers of consciousness. The western problem was how to relate to divine powers outside oneself, and how to develop in the process one's original personality (a concept ignored in the East), that is, one's ego. In the East, the problem is how to overcome and extinguish the ego as an essential step on the way to the discovery of one's fundamental identity with the unindividualised divinity within the deep self according to the sacred formula, "Tat Tvam Asi", (Thou Art That). The Almighty Brahman, lord of the universe, and atman, the human soul, are one and the same. Quite obviously, philosophies of transformation are entirely geared to the development of the mystical potential in man; whereas philosophies of objective information are not. This explains the unending tension between mystical tendencies in the West and the rational intellect of its dogmatic theologians and philosophers.
In spite of the East-West dichotomy, there seems to be, however, a broad area of agreement between all mystics the world over; that, while the majority of human beings lead a more or less worthy life framed by the moral standards of whatever society they happen to be born into, there is another special "way" for those who feel instinctively in touch with higher spiritual powers. This way is as mysterious as its destination, which is literally beyond verbal description, inexpressible in any language, although it can be hinted at in pictures and metaphors, music and poetry. It is here, in the direct records of the personal experiences of the great mystics, that the heart of the religious impulse is to be found, rather than in the official dogmas and intellectual interpretations of theologians.
Perhaps the most dramatic instance of the opposition between the two forms of knowledge occurred to Thomas Aquinas, the supreme theologian whose monumental Summa Theologiae remained the cornerstone of Roman Catholic doctrine for centuries. On the feast of St. Nicholas in 1273, he was unexpectedly overpowered by a mystical rapture of such intensity that all his theological writings appeared to him as totally worthless. In his own words:
"Everything that I have written seems like straw to me, in comparison with the things that I have seen and that have been revealed to me."
And therefore, he never wrote another word. This, from a theological standpoint, rather embarrassing episode, also illustrates the staggering nature of mystical rapture, not only as physical sensation and spiritual emotion, but also as translogical knowledge of a far higher order than can be acquired by the most brilliant intellect.
Quite clearly, all religions have sprung from this indefinable awareness in human nature that obviously transcends its physical and mental limitations, a potential awareness made actual in some peculiarly gifted human beings. It is in the sum-total of the records of their own direct personal experiences in this realm beyond life and death, and beyond time and space, that kernel of religious truth is to be found - although in most men, this mystical disposition lies beneath the threshold of waking consciousness, not strong enough to break into the open and revolutionise their lives.
If we peruse these records carefully, we are struck by a universal insistence on the fact that all distinction between things, men, object and subject, self and non-self is overcome, and abolished. The world becomes "One", which is the essence of the monistic philosophy of India's Vedanta. This, the western intellect resists with all its might, since it abolishes the whole monotheistic concept of a sharp distinction between man and God; it makes a mockery of the concept that history has any spiritual meaning; and it destroys all the analytical claims of western thought as to the sharp opposition between subject and object.
No wonder that western mystics have always had to contend with the underlying hostility of the cultural environment into which they were born. Unless they are honest enough to claim, like Aquinas, that their intellectual word is "straw" as compared with the true mystical vision, they had to go through extraordinary contortions to dissociate the vision from the almost irresistible claim of their souls to outright participation in the Divine. As St. John of the Cross put it in his Dark Night of the Soul:
"I trust neither to experience nor to knowledge ... but solely to the Holy Scriptures ... it is not my intention to depart from the sound doctrine of our holy mother the Catholic Church. I resign myself absolutely to her light, and submit to her decisions ..."
In the East there can be no such surrender since it is acknowledged that ultimate Reality is precisely what the mystic experiences; and that this experience is the actual recovery of his inner, divine Self. He becomes, in fact, what he has actually alway been. Time and again, the western mystic is warned not to let himself be carried away by the subjective "illusion" of his own potential divinity, warned that there can be no divine incarnation in man - save in the one and only case of Jesus, for the Christians - and that his experience is actually a "vision" of an objectified, transcendental and forever separate Almighty God, rather than a "fusion" with it.
In spite of all those strictures, western mystics managed often enough to convey the essence of their raptures, which agree with the eastern testimony. The essence of their raptures, which agree with the eastern testimony. The essence is the monistic feeling that the seer and the seen are identical, that there is no division or distinction between one thing and another: the corollary is that the vision completely transcends the rational mind, and that it is therefore beyond verbal description: and finally that the experience is an overwhelmingly emotional one, involving a supreme peace "that passes all understanding", total calm and total blessedness. As the pagan mystic Plontinus put it:
"The man is changed, no longer himself nor self-belonging: he is merged with the Supreme, sunken into it, one with it ... This is why the vision baffles telling: for how could a man bring back tidings of the Supreme as detached, when he has seen it as one with himself?"
The true mystical experience is in complete contradiction with the main trend of the western philosophic outlook. No wonder that, time and again, the objectifying, analytical mind of the West has viewed mysticism either with distrust, or as sheer delusion or superstition whereas the East views precisely this objectifying, analytical mind as the source of all delusions.
In early Buddhism, we reach the height of total subjectivity untainted by any attempt at objectification. Buddha denied the objective reality of Brahman, merely stressing Nirvana, the subjective state of enlightenment. This has brought upon him the accusation of atheism; but this accusation is irrelevant to the extent that early Buddhism was simply not interested in any kind of objectification whatsoever. It merely posits the total unreality of any stable substance, thing or concept, claiming that everything is in a perpetual flux, that only events take place - reminding us of Whiteheads's famous saying that "The event is the unit of things real." The same, of course, applies to the other so-called "atheistic" schools of Indian philosophy such as Samkhya and Yoga. The real is what you experience, not what you think. All attempts at identifying and defining the Supreme Deity, God, Allah, Brahman, are pointless and meaningless since they all hint at some Reality that is beyond time and space, beyond the objective and the subjective, and therefore beyond verbal description - and yet, can be experienced by man. Even to state that God exists objectifies Him, and implies that He is one thing among other things, and is therefore finite and in contradiction with His infinity - hence the impossibility of proving His existence by intellectual means alone.
We can now sum up the broad areas of agreement between the eastern mystical insight as expressed in eastern literature and philosophy, and the revolutionary vision of the universe postulated in contemporary physics. The first place must be given to the monistic view of the world, the fundamental oneness of it, which becomes increasingly evident at the subatomic level where all the phenomena are interrelated and cannot be viewed as autonomous and isolated things or processes: particles' properties can only be observed and defined through their interactions with other systems. The second place must be given to the non-existence of a sharp separation between object and subject, observer and thing observed, since the observer, like the mystic, is an active "participant" in the experiment, and forms one whole with whatever is being observed.
This entails, in turn, the overcoming of the world of opposites and transforming them into alternation and interdependent poles, like those of a magnetic field. In China the interplay of Yin and Yang has traditionally symbolised this alternance. In the far more intellectualised culture of India, the constant theme is the need to transcend all pairs-of-opposites, dvandva. This overcoming of pairs-of-opposites occurs constantly in nuclear physics where continuity and discontinuity co-exist; where particles are all at once destructible and indestructible; where energy changes into matter and vice-versa; where the statistical character of the quantum theory makes it impossible to state flatly that a particle exists or does not exist in a given place since it is, in fact, a probability pattern in a state that is halfway between existence and non-existence.
To conclude, we may eventually look forward to a global, planetary culture in which both the "eastern" mystical and "western" scientific searches for ultimate Reality will merge, and which will transcend them both. A physical science will go on developing indefinitely within the limits it is setting for itself; and a science and technique of mysticism will strip away all dogmas, theologies and ideologies prevailing today in order to concern itself exclusively with this most mysterious and profound transhuman experience.
Journal of Dharma