Continuing on from my previous post – in which I posed the question: Is the relationship between the unmanifest Absolute and phenomenal appearances best described as symmetrical or asymmetrical? – let’s explore a couple of metaphoric frameworks, which may support us in clarifying the issue.
The Sun & Its Rays
Consider the Absolute to be something like the sun; and phenomena (i.e. body-mind-world appearances) akin to the rays of the sun.
The rays are, essentially, none other than the sun – but the sun is more than any one of its individual rays. Each ray is an emanation of and hence depends for its existence on the sun (as a whole) – but the sun does not depend for its existence on any individual ray.
Just so: phenomenal appearances are, essentially, none other than the Absolute – but the Absolute is more than any one of these appearances. Each phenomena depends for its existence on the Absolute – but the Absolute does not depend for its existence on any individual phenomena.
This metaphor clearly suggests an asymmetry — in terms of ontological primacy — between the Absolute and appearances: with the former taking precedence. It also points to the ultimately unified nature of the Absolute and phenomena: the sun and its rays (taken collectively) are not-separate.
So then, we might ask: In the absence of any and all rays, would the sun still exist?
With this question, we’ve come to a fork in the road, a decision-point: Do we conclude (1) that the metaphor now is breaking down, in terms of its usefulness; or (2) that the metaphor can also point to a symmetrical aspect to the relationship between Absolute and phenomena, namely: that in the absence of all phenomena, the Absolute also ceases to exist?
Going with option #2 would seem to deny the validity of Nirvikalpa Samadhi (i.e. the direct experience of the Absolute in the absence of any phenomenal objects) — though could also be interpreted as pointing to the non-conceptual nature of the Absolute, in which all mental polarities – including the Absolute/phenomena polarity – have dissolved. In other words, when the concept of phenomena has dissolved, its conceptual opposite (viz. the Absolute) must also dissolve – leaving us in and as the direct non-conceptual experience of nondual Reality.
Electricity & Light Bulbs
Now, to enter a slightly different metaphoric terrain: consider the Absolute to be something akin to electricity; and phenomena to be something akin to light appearing via specific light-bulbs.
In its non-specific form, electricity is an invisible field of energy. It becomes visible only in the form of light emitted from a bulb connected to this invisible field. The qualities of the light emitted – e.g. its color, shape and vibrancy – depend upon the qualities of the bulb (as well as the qualities of the lamp-shade and the room into which it shines).
For instance: a 120-watt bulb is more vibrant (i.e. channels a greater quantity of electricity) than does a 60-watt bulb. A blue-tinted bulb emits blue light, while a red-tinted bulb emits red light. A bulb covered with a thick cylindrical shade scatters the light in a shape different from that of a bare bulb, or one contained within a spherical shade.
Any given bulb depends – for its capacity to emit light – upon the invisible field of electricity; but the field of electricity does not depend, for its existence, upon any (or all) of the individual bulbs.
Just so: any phenomenal appearance depends – for its capacity to “shine” – upon the invisible field of the Absolute; but the Absolute does not depend, for its existence, upon any (or all) of the phenomenal appearances.
Also: the specific qualities of phenomena would seem to condition the (perceived) expression of the Absolute, i.e. determine the extent to which the Absolute flows through transparently, or in a densely veiled form.
The advantage of this electricity/bulb metaphor is that it supports an exploration of how the Absolute can appear in the guise of a wide variety of phenomenal qualities. It also points to an asymmetrical relationship between Absolute and phenomena: The breaking of any given bulb does not affect the electrical current; but cutting off the electrical current renders all bulbs ineffectual.
The disadvantage of this metaphor is that it heightens the duality between transmitter and that which is transmitted; between vehicle and essence. While a ray of the sun is clearly not-separate from the sun itself; a light-bulb (sans electrical current, i.e. “turned off”) is generally understood as being separate from the electrical current. So this is the limitation of the electricity/bulb metaphor: it slides a rather easily into the (mistaken) notion of an “external world” existing independently from the Absolute – of bulbs whose existence precedes their being “lit up” by electrical current.
Comedy & Tragedy: The Devil Is In The Details
How does this ontological issue come to bear on the question of suffering and liberation from suffering? In other words: why should we care?
One possible answer: If suffering is something that happens only within the realm of phenomena – but there’s an aspect of the Absolute that remains (via their asymmetrical relationship) perpetually free from phenomena – then perhaps freedom from suffering lies in finding this partition of the Absolute which lies separate from the set of all phenomena. In other words: our ticket to peace, joy, happiness is to forever escape from the realm of phenomena.
Another possible answer: If the culprit – the true cause of suffering — is our (mis)understanding of phenomena rather than phenomena/appearances in and of themselves, then transforming emotional angst and mental confusion into unconditioned peace and joy is a matter not of escape but rather of recognizing our true identity as the (transpersonal) actor rather than the (personal) character in a Shakespearean tragedy. Then even apparently tragic events are infused with a subtle wink from the Divine: a sense of humor, however (apparently) dark it may be [think: Life of Brian or Breaking Bad]. If – a la this more symmetrical view — phenomena and the Absolute fully permeate and pervade one another, then the solution (to the suffering “problem”) cannot possibly be an escape from one into the other: rather it must be via alignment with the Truth of their seamless interpenetration.
Dissolving The Question
Ultimately, the relationship between the Absolute and phenomena is neither “symmetrical” nor “asymmetrical.” Why? – Because any relational terms depend upon the assumption of there being two separate entities, whose separation allow them to be “in relation” to one another. And this is how the human mind habitually operates: via pairs of opposites, each of which gives conceptual meaning to the other, in the creation of our various stories (of “self” and “world”).
But the final message – and direct insight – of nondual spiritual traditions is (just to state the obvious) that there are not-two. There is only one Reality. So the question is not one of symmetry v. asymmetry – but rather of transforming our dualistic vision into the vision of ultimate Truth – in which we see directly, experience non-conceptually, that (what the mind calls) “phenomena” are always and already not-separate from (what the mind calls) “the Absolute.”