Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Student of the Nagas

By Brian George

"That which is the element of light ... is seen to exist on account of [in relation to] darkness; that which is the element of good is seen to exist on account of bad; that which is the element of space is seen to exist on account of form.”—Nagarjuna, circa 150-250 BC

“Method is more important than strength…By dropping golden beads near a snake, a crow once managed to have a passerby kill the snake for the beads.”--Nagarjuna

Hi  Olujide,

I am sorry to hear that your experience of the Vipassana method at the Goenka retreat was less than ideal. This method can, indeed, seem overly dry and rationalistic. While focusing on the normal inflow and outflow of the breath, you allow the random contents of consciousness to bubble to the surface, calmly labeling such things as “fear,” “resentment,” “greed,” “hatred,” “sexual attraction,” “nostalgia,” or, more reductively, “thought,” or “emotion,” and then, without judgment, you allow them to go on their way. So far, so good. It is a simple and powerful method, and, over the long run, can produce far-reaching results. The problem, in the short run, is that the method may not lead easily or inevitably to a state of expanded energy, and that it is the already constricted intellect that is doing all of this labeling. The web of interdependent origination, which can be perceived as directly as a landscape in a state of ecstatic consciousness, can, in this method, sometimes be pursued as a kind of moral imperative—i.e., as something that you should see, instead of something that you actually do see. I think that its effectiveness depends very much upon the character of the meditator, as well as on his or her objectives. For some, it can seem as though they are putting the cart in front of the horse, and then going, over and over, around in very slightly wider circles.

For those with an artistic bent—such as you or me—it might be better to focus first on the generation of energy, and then, once you have been projected into space, it may be easier to take in the whole of the landscape at a glance, and to grasp how each detail is related to the others.

Curiously, though, you also quote this strange and wonderful passage from the Nag Hammadi manuscripts—Allogenes XI, 3—which reads like a Gnostic version of Nagarjuna’s seminal “not this; not that” philosophy, which is, arguably, at the heart of the Vipassana method. The Nag Hammadi passage reads, “He is superior to the Universals in his privation and unknowability, that is, the non-being existence, since he is endowed with silence and stillness lest he be diminished by those who are not diminished…For he is not perfect but he is another thing that is superior. He is neither boundless, nor is he bounded by another…He is not corporeal. He is not incorporeal. He is not a number. He is not a creature. Nor is he something that exists, that one can know. But he is something else of himself that is superior, which one cannot know…He neither participates in age nor does he participate in time…And he is much higher in beauty than all those that are good, and he is thus unknowable to all of them in every respect. And through them all he is in them all, not only as the unknowable knowledge that is proper to him. And he is united with the ignorance that sees him.”

In capsule form, Nagarjuna argued that the “self” and/ or “reality” is “not this” and “not that.” Nagarjuna is generally credited with the founding of the Madhyamaka School of Mahayana Buddhism, but the method of “not this; not that” would not seem to be specific to a single school. How could it be, when you think about it? In Vipassana, by focusing, moment by moment, on the transience of all objects, we are empowered to see through the foreground of our everyday attachments and into the deeper background of the landscape. Some traditional sources say that Nagarjuna received his understanding of the Sutras directly from the realm of the “Nagas,” the “Snakes” who hold the keys to inter-dimensional knowledge—as well as, perhaps, to the lost history of our race. His very name—“Naga” (snake) plus “Arjuna” (white, like lightning or the dawn; clear)—argues for this connection. His methodology is perhaps best understood against the backdrop of the versions of sacrificial  Vedism and monistic Shaivism that were current during his period. We tend to think of these versions as “early,” but they were, I believe, very late developments in a tradition that was almost inconceivably old, and they may, by that point, have become too formulaic. This was also the period during which the Zero was invented—or reinvented—and his methodology could perhaps be seen in terms of the Zero as opposed to the One.

The key insight was that all things are inextricably connected, and give rise to each other; thus the existent cannot at any time be separated from the non-existent, nor can the high be separated from the low. While it is true that Nagarjuna was part of an international trend towards rational philosophy, his insights could nonetheless be applied in any number of contradictory directions, including that of shamanic strategy. If, in the minds of later Buddhist scholars, he was first and foremost a philosopher, this does not mean that he was any less a student of the Nagas. By attempting to be all things to all people, he made use of their non-local subtlety, and was able to do each thing while seeming to do something else. “Method is more important than strength,” as he said. In the Vedic and Shaivite views then current, the gods and the Atman—or higher self—were more or less eternal and substantial, while human beings were transient and insubstantial. What Nagarjuna perhaps set out to do was to place all beings on an equal footing, and to create a relative ease of movement between physical and non-physical realms.

If the “here” is inextricably connected to the “there,” then why should we be desperate to break through to the Beyond? There is no hard and fast barrier, and we are free to take a “middle path.” It is even possible to interpret some of the more extreme forms of asceticism in the Buddha’s and Nagarjuna’s day as coming out of a Vedic equivalent of the concept of “original sin.” We humans were incorrigibly asleep, the slaves of Maya, the food of demons, the puppets of the gods, the prisoners of our five senses, and only the most extreme measures were sufficient to set us free. (I believe that this form of asceticism—Sthanu, or the withdrawal of one’s energies from manifestation to preserve their explosive potency—actually goes back to a much earlier period, and has a different origin and purpose than might be immediately apparent, but I will address this issue in some future post.) During this period, the relationship between the worlds had become clouded, and the gods were not seen as the help-mates of human beings. They were powerful forces, to be appeased, or magicians, to be emulated. At best, they were our direct competition, against whom we must struggle with one hand tied behind our backs. Heaven had become overpopulated, and the gods desired to keep any new generations of ascendant yogis out.

In the “Saiva Siddhanta,” a Sri Lankan school of philosophy that—according to some scholars—originated around 250 BC, this tension between humans and the gods was explored at considerable length. Here, for example, is an anonymous text that succinctly sums up the issues. It reads, “Whoever among gods, sages or men becomes enlightened became the very self of the gods, and the gods had no power to prevent him. But whoever worships another divinity is like a sacrificial animal for the gods, and each person is of use to the gods just as many animals would be of use to a man. Therefore it is not pleasing to those gods that men should become enlightened.” In this tradition, the human soul is generally described by the word “pasu,” which means “beast.” Having fallen from a state of primordial clarity, the soul becomes vulnerable to the projections of a “lord,” or “pati,” who is not under any obligation to play fair. By the power of the “pasa,” which means bond or snare, the soul—like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome—then willingly comes to embrace its own subservient position, as it looks to its oppressor for small gifts.

A kind of impasse had been reached. If the heroic yogi, with his arsenal of “siddhis”—or supernatural powers—posed a threat, then perhaps the “An-Atman”—or “Not-Self”—could slip back and forth throughout the higher worlds unseen, or at least without stirring up any premature opposition. “There is nobody here but us chickens!”—as the saying goes. Of course, there are such incidents as the Buddha’s apocalyptic confrontation with Mara, but this conflict was not so much won as simply side-stepped, by a kind of metaphysical judo. Because, in one sense, there is nowhere in particular to go, the physical plane is just as beautiful and as valuable as any other, and provides us with a stable platform from which to act upon the cosmos. So, what does the Arhat—or “enlightened being”—do when he has reintegrated his mind and body into the field of zero-point energy? The conventional answer would seem to be based upon a preoccupation with imprisonment. It is that, if the Arhat chooses to return from his state of ecstasy, then this must be due either to the unresolved karmic pull of his attraction to the lower worlds OR to his compassion for the suffering of all sentient beings. Compassion is certainly one valid reason to return, but I believe that there is an older, and somewhat more peculiar, reason. If we were to probe far back into the mists of human history, and then even further back, before the gods had been created from our surplus, and when the yogi was not different from the poet and the warrior, I believe that the original reason would have been “to play.”

Even with recent breakthroughs in our theoretical understanding of the Zero, we still, on some deep, historically conditioned level, cannot help but think of the world as a kind of inanimate stage-set. We cannot begin to imagine that the earlier versions of ourselves were in any way instrumental in bringing this and other worlds into existence. In saying this, let me be very clear that I am not referring to the New Age concept that we “create our own reality,” which I tend to see as an ego-based fantasy of omnipotence. No, we were non-local givers, not autobiographical hoarders. We were death-defying acrobats, not passive-aggressive spectators. Because we are operating on a fraction of our preexistent voltage, we tend to misunderstand both the motives and the actions of the early race, and thus to misdiagnose the origins of what we now perceive to be our imprisonment.

In the Norse “Elder Edda,” there is a line that goes something like, “The Sons of Ivaldi labored for an age to build Skidbladnir, best of boats.” When I first read this, around 1977, the line hit me like a depth-charge. Why would it take so long for the “dwarfs” to build a boat? And what sort of a boat were they talking about? Perhaps the physical world, as well as each of the worlds before it, was first envisioned as a kind of “boat,” or “vehicle,” upon or within which the gods could ride. The attributes of the boat were certainly peculiar in the extreme. Here, for example, is the way that it is described in the “Dictionary of Norse Mythology.” It says, “The ship was big enough to hold all the gods and their horses and equipment, yet small enough to be folded up and put away in a pouch when not in use. It could sail over land or through the air, as well as on the sea, and has been compared to a swift-moving cloud…” I thought to myself, “I will plant this concept like a seed, and, if I tend to it through the years, it will bring me many insights.” And so it has.

Not long after this, I also stumbled across a line from the “Orphic Argonautica,” a text written about 500 BC that seems to refer back to a previous world destruction. In it, it is clear that the Orphic speaker is both an observer and a participant, whose job, perhaps, is to gently lean on the steering-oar. At the end of the poem, he says, “Now the gadfly leaves me stinging and burning. My body learns from the unremitting sky. You will hear from my voice all the things I concealed from stubborn men; how the heroes and half gods passed over into Peiria and the steep sheer head of the Wet Country…I sail upon the ship of the world.”

(Illustration: Victor Brauner)

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