View Full Version : What is the Ultimate reality, from the eastern perspectives

November 13th, 2005, 12:50 AM
Hi All,

Just to stimulate discussion...and inspired by your own understandings of the eastern paths, how do you view the ultimate reality...and how do the eastern paths you draw from view the ultimate realaity, how have these impacted on your own spiritual path?



November 13th, 2005, 07:03 AM
I must confess to being profoundly influenced by the Brahman / Atman complex of the Upanishads (in the mystical sense, I'm not really impressed by any of the later philosophising of the schools of Vedanta - merely the sense that there is some sort of intimate relationship between the micro-cosmic and macro cosmic self). However, my own personal spin on this is conditioned by Process Philosophy - that the macrocosmic self is formed by the existence of the microcosmic selves - i.e. that Brahman is made up of all the Atmans, but with emergent properties (i.e. the sum is greater than the whole). I believe that the same is also true of each individual atman - that it is the sum of the microconsciousnesses of the particles composing each individual. Thus my personal spin on Atman is a little unorthodox - that the Atman is the inner spiritual organisation of each individual living thing - it remains within samsara in the sense that the particles composing us continue after our death - contributing their micro-consciousnesses to new individuals, and thus "reincarnating" - I suspect that this may produce a kind of unconsicous conditioning that may relate to Karma.

For anyone reading this who is a little mystified, I append a short discussion of the orthodox Upanishadic ideas -

Brahman and Atman.
The main concern of the Upanishads is the nature of Brahman and Atman, and before we examine what the texts say, we should consider these terms. If you have encountered them before, then they may have been referred to as meaning “God” and the “Soul”, but these terms are profoundly misleading, indeed they point in entirely the wrong direction altogether. “God” and “Soul” are western terms from a particular religious philosophy, and have a specific meaning, which is not applicable to either Brahman or Atman. A more accurate, but equally unhelpful, translation of these terms is “self”, but this is also misleading, as, in the West, we tend to think of the “self” as being “me” – my self is that which makes me the person that I am, and we tend to think that includes ideas such as personality, thoughts, and emotions – these qualities are entirely absent from Brahman and Atman. If we were to think of them as “Spirit”, then we might be a little closer, for in Western terms Spirit is primarily defined by not being Matter (i.e. my spirit is not my body), and this, at least, is getting closer to what is being described.

The Atman may be thought of as the spirit within every living thing (a category that includes not merely all human beings, but also all animals, fish, birds, insects, plants, and in some cases particular rocks). The Atman provides the “life-force” of that living thing – by which we mean that it gives that thing the power to live, and also the consciousness or awareness of that living thing. Living things have consciousness that enables them to be aware of the world around them – this is the Atman. The Atman, however, is not limited to this existence, when each living thing dies, the Atman within passes onto another form of life – it is eternal. This is thought of as being a trap, which holds the Atman in the physical world. The purpose of Jnana is to gain moksha (liberation) and set the Atman free from the physical world, so that it may merge with Brahman (although this is, as we shall see, understood in a variety of different ways). The Atman is impersonal, it has no characteristics of the creature that it inhabits – when John Smith dies, everything about John Smith, his personality, ambitions, emotions, thoughts, all cease – only the Atman, carries on. We might think of this as though the Atman is the driver of a car. When your car wears out, you get out of it, and into a new one, yet you are not, at any stage, actually part of the car. Intellectual knowledge is useless in attempting to understand the Atman – it may be described, but those descriptions are just signposts pointing in a vague direction, it cannot be known by the intellect (indeed, as it is the part of us that is the knower, this is a contradictory idea). In philosophical terms The Atman is apophatic – it may only be described in negative terms. (I.E. it is possible to say that “Atman is not this small, blue, rubber ball”, but it is not possible to say that “Atman is like this”).

Many similar ideas are applicable to Brahman – although Brahman is a universal spirit rather than that of an individual living thing. Brahman does for the universe what the Atman does for the living things – enables it to exist, supporting and underpinning it, enabling it to continue. Brahman is also beyond description – it exists utterly without qualities, indeed the term Brahman Nirguna means just that – without qualities.
An analogy to point us in the right direction might be that of an icecap, similar to that found in the arctic. At the North Pole there is no land, merely a thick cap of ice resting upon the sea. If you were to stand there and look around, everything that you see would be composed of frozen water, supported by more water, going down to unknowable depths. Brahman is like this, mysterious and profound: it not only supports the physical universe, but penetrates it, running throughout everything that is. Brahman is also apophatic, although traditionally three attributes are applied – sat, cit, ananda (Being, Consciousness, and Bliss). This means that Brahman exists, is aware, and is blissful, but does not seek any further description. An important idea that is often used when discussing Brahman is the Sanskrit syllable Om. The exact nature of this sound is difficult to understanding, it is not a description of Brahman, but is the expression of Brahman as a sound – saying it is not a description of “something that is out there”, but is a way of bringing Brahman into the world.
We can see clearly that the use of words like “God” or “Soul” are singularly misleading - Brahman is not God, nor is Atman a Soul, they are quite different things – profoundly impersonal. A useful distinction to use when thinking about them is that between Macrocosmic (or universal – as in “Brahman is the Macrocosmic Spirit”), and Microcosmic (or personal – as in “Atman is the Microcosmic Spirit”).
Another significant point that is raised throughout the Upanishads is that there is a profound and mysterious relationship between Atman and Brahman, although this is described in a number of ways – Atman and Brahman may be the same thing, or different things that are similar, or Atman may be a piece of Brahman – nobody is quite sure. That there is a relationship is certain, exactly what that relationship is, is never really agreed upon. This certainty that there is a close relationship between the two is based upon the Jnana of the renouncers, they knew that this was the case because they had experienced it, although, by the very nature of Atman and Brahman it was impossible to articulate it clearly. The closeness of the relationship is demonstrated in the way that the texts use the terms Atman and Brahman in a fairly interchangeable manner – in English translations this is often made either more simple or more complex, by the fact that both words are often translated as Self.

In order to gain a better understanding of the teaching of the Upanishads, we should consider what the texts themselves have to say. The Katha Upanishad, a dialogue between Yama, the God of death, and his Chela Nachiketas makes it clear that, in order to gain Jnana, one must submit to the discipline and wisdom of an experienced Guru:

'That (Self), when taught by an inferior man, is not easy to be known, even though often thought upon; unless it be taught by another, there is no way to it, for it is inconceivably smaller than what is small.' (Katha Upanishad 2:8.).

Among the requirements for success that Yama identifies are both a strong personal morality, and a meditative practice:

'But he who has not first turned away from his wickedness, who is not tranquil, and subdued, or whose mind is not at rest, he can never obtain the Self (even) by knowledge (Katha Upanishad 2:24)

and the importance of meditation practice is further emphasised:

'But he who has understanding and whose mind is always firmly held, his senses are under control, like good horses of a charioteer.' (Katha Upanishad 3:6).

Yama goes on to explain to Nachiketas how Atman exists in all things:

'That Self is hidden in all beings and does not shine forth” (Katha Upanishad 3:12)

and Yama also expands how Atman is the consciousness of all beings, which enable them to perceive the world around them:

'That by which we know form, taste, smell, sounds, and loving touches, by that also we know what exists besides’. (Katha Upanishad 4:3).

The Bhagavad Gita (which, while not one of the Upanishads, also explains some of the important ideas of Jnana) features an explanation by the God Krishna, of how the Atman is eternal:

He is never born, and he never dies. He is in Eternity: he is for evermore. Never-born and eternal, beyond times gone or to come, he does not die when the body dies. (Bhagavad Gita 2:20),

and passes on from one body to the next after death:

As a man leaves an old garment and puts on one that is new, the Spirit leaves his mortal body and then puts on one that is new. (Bhagavad Gita 2:22).

We find a clear explanation of the way that this works by returning to the teaching of Yama in the Katha Upanishad, where he explains that it is the achievements of this and other lives that effects the destination of the Atman:

'Some enter the womb in order to have a body, as organic beings, others go into inorganic matter, according to their work and according to their knowledge.' (Katha Upanishad 5:7).

That the Atman is beyond intellectual knowledge is a common idea throughout the texts, but is most beautifully illustrated in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

“The atman is not like this or like that….how assuredly can one know the knower?” (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 2.4.14)

That the renouncer who finally achieves this Jnana will be rewarded with moksha is also a constant theme, here Yama continues his explanation by offering the promise of liberation to Nachiketas:

'He who has perceived that which is without sound, without touch, without form, without decay, without taste, eternal, without smell, without beginning, without end, beyond the Great, and unchangeable, is freed from the jaws of death.' (Katha Upanishad 3:15).

The Upanishads also contain very many wonderful images to try and explain the nature of Brahman. The idea that Brahman permeates the universe is explained clearly to Nachiketas by Yama in the Katha Upanishad:

'He (Brahman) is the swan (sun), dwelling in the bright heaven; he is the Vasu (air), dwelling in the sky; he is the sacrificer (fire), dwelling on the hearth; he is the guest (Soma), dwelling in the sacrificial jar; he dwells in men, in gods (vara), in the sacrifice (rita), in heaven; he is born in the water, on earth, in the sacrifice (rita), on the mountains; he is the True and the Great.' (Katha Upanishad 5:2)

A similar idea is expressed in the famous passage from the Chandogya Upanishad where the guru Uddalaka Aruni teaches his son Svetaketu to understand that Brahman subtly permeates the universe, (although this passage also emphasises the close identity between Brahman and Atman – as we will see, they are understood to be the same thing):

'Put this piece of salt in the water and come to me tomorrow morning.'
[Svetaketu] did as he was told. [Then his father] said to him:
'[Do you remember] that piece of salt you put in the water yesterday evening? Would you be good enough to bring it here?'
He groped for it but could not find it. It had completely dissolved.
'Would you please sip it at this end? What is it like? he said.
'Sip it in the middle. What is it like?
'Sip it at the far end. What is it like?
'Throw it away, and then come to me.'
He did as he was told; but [that did not stop the salt from] remaining ever the same.
[His father] said to him: 'My dear child, it is true that you cannot perceive Being here, but it is equally true that it is here. "This finest essence,—the whole universe has it as its Self: That is the Real: That is the Self: That you are, Svetaketu (Chandogya Upanishad VI.xiii. 1-3)

Just as the salt permeates the water without being seen, so Brahman permeates the universe without being known – a lesson that Svetaketu learned in a memorable and practical way.

This idea of the universe being permeated by Brahman (which is understood as intimately involved with Atman) is further developed in the Kenopanishad, where the doctrine is that it is Brahman that is the consciousness within human beings:

That which speech cannot express, but that by which speech is expressed is Brahman. Know that alone as Brahman, not that which people worship here. That which cannot be felt by the mind, but that which enables the mind to feel, that is Brahman. That which cannot be seen with the eye, but enables your eye to see, understand that alone to be God, not what people worship here. (Kenopanishad 1.5-7)

For our final point on the nature of Brahman in the Upanishads, the importance of the mantra syllable Om, we must return to the teaching of Yama in the Katha Upanishad, where Nachiketas is taught the incredible value of this practice, the use of this technique is guaranteed by Yama to bring Jnana:

'That (imperishable) syllable (Om) means Brahman, that syllable means the highest (Brahman); he who knows that syllable, whatever he desires, is his.' (Katha Upanishad 2:16)

I apologise if this has gone on for a bit, but I hope that it was of interest.

November 14th, 2005, 06:01 AM
^_^ that just makes me want to get the Upanishads (I can't find them in any bookstores). It also makes my head swirl.

My view...as I said before I ever looked at any eastern paths was that. God/Energy is in everything. The earth, the stars, the sky, the plants, animals, and us. I think that energy in scientific terms is god. It cannot be created or destroyed it is always there. But even simplfing it like that seems just that way too simple. To me it's beyond understanding, but in the end is everything that is understood. As far as being influenced by hinduism (because honestly I have not even really looked at any of the other eastern paths), I don't know how to say I have been...but that the idea of Brahman seems like my ideal...and that Atman (where I'm a still a bit more lost on) seems the most true explanaition to me...albiet a bit out of my grasp...lol. As far as Atman...I always considered this the subconscious...which is a Brahman. I like to joke with my friends that I am God...which I believe part of me is.
As far as what Paracelsus posted the bit from the Bhagavad Gita and the salt bit I am familiar with as well as some stuff not from the texts.
I also believe all gods are Brahman too... like we are. That through them we can understand Brahman a little better.

October 2nd, 2006, 08:59 AM
Good question, I am profoundly influenced by the 'general' concept of Brahman, the ultimate reality that is both transcendent and immannent at once, the supreme cosmic spirit that permeates everything in existence, that IS in effect existence itself, yet is forever wholly ineffable, far beyond the realms of ones mind and capability of speech to fully understand, yet we can understand limited aspects which we class as' The Gods' i refer to the ultimate reality or 'Divine' simply as ' It' with the various Gods simply personifying its infinite attributes and displaying a more personable face towards us, the Divine communicates with us throught these means, as it says in the Devi Mahatmyam, ' Worship me in any form you choose and in that very form I shall come to you' sounds ideal to me!x