What is Vedanta?

Introduction

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind. This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record. The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile. This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures. The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins. In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE. Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads. The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture. The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”. Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE. Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads. As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites. Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy. The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family. It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE. Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life. In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman. This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya”, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed. The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads. It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries. The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE. The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle. Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War. This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins. Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith. An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita. In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting. The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc. This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature – Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit. Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta. [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life. The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman. According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

The Ultimate Aim of Vedanta: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power. Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development. This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion. The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life. The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises. Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures. And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior. To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness. That was its sole purpose of existence. This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around. The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order. Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively. You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit. Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day. This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

Kali’s Child: A Case Study in the Limits of Freudian Psychoanalysis

As reluctant as I am to offer off an opinion on a debate that has been bantered about by scholars much more learned and experienced than I in comparative religion and scholars familiar with the source texts in Bengali, most notably the Kathamrita by Ramakrishna’s (householder) disciple known simply as M., I find that there are a few notable points, one in particular, that seems to be missing from the heart of the debate that I would like to offer up as a potential source of not only the heart of the debate but as a potential bridge for gap between the two seemingly diametrically opposed, and for now at least vehemently argumentative, sides of the debate.

For those of you not familiar with the book Kali’s Child or the subsequent controversy surrounding the publishing of the book, I would point you to the Wikipedia entry on the subject here which describes among other things how the book, authored by Jeffrey Kripal, a Professor of Comparative Religion at Rice University whose web site can be found here, which won the American Academy of Religion’s History of Religions Prize for the Best First Book of 1995 and then was subject to a broad ranging set of criticisms by “insiders”, i.e. those part of or schooled in the tradition of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and their students and disciples as reflected in the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order and its sister organization the Ramakrishna Mission, as well as “outsiders”, i.e. those who have not been immersed in the teachings of the life and times of Ramakrishna and his disciples by those who carry the torch of the tradition in the Ramakrishna Order, with of course its many supporters who laud the work for its originality, mostly from the Western academic community. [Note that this distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders” is drawn and taken from, and in my view is an accurate delineation of the two sides of the debate, the book by Swami Tyagananda (an esteemed monk of the Ramakrishna Order who presides over the Ramakrishna Vedanta Society in Boston and is a Hindu chaplain to MIT and Harvard) and Pravrajika Vrajaprana published in 2010 entitled Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a work that covers the history of the source texts on Ramakrishna in the last 100 years and change along with a through criticism and attack not only on Kripal’s thesis in Kali’s Child, but also on the quality of his scholarship in general].

Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind, which although he refers to (correctly) as samadhi clearly approaches the validity of these states of mind with what can be best described as a healthy degree of skepticism, hence his thesis . I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove, that it is not only Ramakrishna’s (repressed and/or sexually traumatically induced) homoerotic desires/experiences which were the source of his “ecstasy”. The interesting thing about this thesis, based on shaky ground or not, is what remains truly hidden, entirely implied and yet never stated explicitly, is that effectively the reason why Kripal’s thesis is rendered merit at any level, again leaving aside whether or not he provides any sufficient evidence to support this thesis aside, is that he assumes that the only way that these experiences can be explained are through Freud’s model of sexual repression and/or unexpressed or unmanifest sexual desire. What Kripal either fails to realize, or realizes and completely ignores, is that this premise in and of itself denies the reality of the entire religious and theological tradition from which Ramakrishna lived and experienced his life within, namely Hinduism and in its philosophical and theological terms Vedanta, which lives on even today in various forms and flavors – Tantra being one of them.

The other side of the argument however, the one promoted by and backed by insiders – and again this assumption is not made totally clear in the response to Kali’s Child by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana in their work Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, assumes that these higher states of consciousness can and do in fact exist, do not require any sort of trauma or sexual (or other types) of repression in order to be induced, and in fact are more “real” than the day to day experiential and materialistic existence of Western man.   Interpreting Ramakrishna describes 19th century Bengal, Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly (via men and women disciple and 1st hand accounts, the latter of which are completely absent in Kripal’s analysis which is a glaring failure in the work), expounding on the nature of Tantra and its relationship to Vedanta, and in general do their best to try and explain the nature of Ramakrishna’s nearly constant experience of divine bliss through the lens of a 19th century Bengali socio-cultural yogic context, which is the only way to understand who he was, what he represented or in any way shape or form try and understand his behavior.

As a counter example, leaving aside whether or not it would even be possible for a Ramakrishna like figure to exist in modern times in the West (and I would argue it would not be for the very reason that Kripal cites that was one of the factors that led to his being perceived as an “avatar”, or an incarnation of God by 19th century Bengalis, i.e. that it was not just Ramakrishna’s belief in the divinity of what he referred to as “this”, i.e. himself, but also the belief of his followers and disciples which were a product of the very same culture that he was brought up in, with a Western bent for the most part given the Westernization of Bengal that was occurring in the 19th century when Ramakrishna lived, where British culture was being super-imposed onto Hindu and Indian culture in a fairly oppressive and arrogant way as has been the case throughout the last four centuries of Western civilization development – WWII and the Jews, the complete destruction of Native American culture by the Americans (and French and Spanish of course), the destruction of the Aboriginal culture by the Australians, the destruction and subjugation of Native African cultures by the colonizing forces in Africa which still goes son today, and in general a wholesale arrogance in Western culture’s belief that their views are better, more accurate and more complete than anyone else’s viewpoint on the nature of reality or the meaning and purpose of life, much less a culture’s religious beliefs which were for the most part – in all the references just cited – were looked down upon as backwards, ancient and outdated, and fundamentally flawed and archaic.

Unfortunately, Kripal’s work in Kali’s Child fits right squarely into this category of work. By taking Freudian psychology as a more accurate and telling vantage point of Ramakrishna’s life and teachings, he is placing this very same Western paradigm of arrogance and self-importance to Western modes of thought as pre-eminent and more trustworthy than specifically in his case the Eastern philosophical tradition from which Ramakrishna himself emerged, which is entirely based upon Hinduism and Vedanta – of which Tantra is a descendant and complementary system, not a wholesale different and unique system. This latter point is not only critical in understanding Ramakrishna’s sadhana, but also in pointing out that Kripal’s laser like focus on Ramakrishna’s Tantric sadhana over his “Vedic” teachings or practices, represents his ignorance of the theological and religious tradition that he is studying. As a Comparative Religious scholar from a respected Western University this is not only shameful and derogatory, this is quite simply poor scholarship. Here he is trying to interpret Ramakrishna’s life, who is the penultimate expression of Hindu and Vedic faith in the last two hundred and fifty years, and he has drawn a hard and fast line between Vedanta, which literally means the end of the Vedas and which Kripal focuses on the “non-dual” interpretation of Vedanta to which Tota Puri, Ramakrishna’s Vedic and monastic teacher represents harkening back to the non-dualistic Vedantic teachings of the 8th century from which Tota Puri’s heritage is linked from what I understand, and Tantra, whose philosophical underpinnings are as interwoven into the Vedic tradition from which it emerged from as are the non-dual teachings of Vedanta that stem from the same, slightly different and nuanced, interpretations of the same texts – the Vedas, the Gita, the Puranas, and the Brahma Sutras making up their core.

Not only do you ignore Vivekananda’s teachings about Ramakrishna’s life, you also ignore Swami Saradananda’s, who wrote the most thorough and comprehensive autobiography of Ramakrishna that exists down to us, but you also ignored Sarada’s (aka Holy Mother, Ramakrishna’s spouse) who was his wife and his partner in his work. What’s worse, is that not only do you ignore their interpretation of Ramakrishna’s life and work, you attack the verity of their work itself as a “cover up” of Ramakrishna’s story and life, that there was some “secret” that they covered up – which again was essentially a homosexual who had no sexual outlet given the culture he lived in, was fascinated and obsessed with “little boys” and it was this repression that was the source of his “ecstatic” experiences which you effectively explain away as a pathological reaction to his sexual abuses as a child and as an adult, abuses which you provide zero evidence for essentially and there is no evidence for in the historical record at all despite the dozens of first-hand accounts that survive down to us about Ramakrishna, the bulk of which you completely ignore in your analysis and study.

A word on Vedanta, of which Tantra is clearly a close cousin if not a direct descendant, both embroiled in a pot of mythology and metaphysics/philosophy that goes back some three thousand years, arguably the oldest practicing religious system in the world if you want to look at the tradition from which Ramakrishna emerges from a purely theological context. Ramakrishna is an embodiment, a full realization of the mythological and metaphysical system of Vedanta, and Hinduism, with an integral Christian and Islamic symbology to go right along with it, as he is said to have realized the truths of these faiths as well. And he took a wife, who was a significant part of his work which you somehow found a way to leave out despite claiming to offer a full psychological read of his visions and the source of his samadhi, or experience of divine bliss. Sarada, aka Holy Mother, is a big part of the story, particularly if you want to look at him through an “erotic” lens you cannot ignore the deep heterosexual aspects of his behavior, a whole complementary set of symbology that you completely leave out because you only want to look at his male-male relationships.

But the philosophical system under which Tantra rests is based upon Purusha and Prakriti, Siva and Sakti. Kripal looks at Kali’s symbology, and Siva’s too independently, but leaves out the heterosexual and erotic coupling of Siva and Sakti themselves, most notably characterized by the image which Kripal spends so much time dissecting namely Kali atop of Siva which is one of the most impressing and profound images of the male/female aspects of creation out of Hindu symbology, pointing to the symbiotic nature of Siva and Sakti and their divine union from which the universe draws its source – this male/female union from which the universe itself emerges, evolves and subsequently devolves, is one of the essential aspects of Hindu mythology to which Tantra, and Vedanta, ultimately rest. This union is the source of existence and represents the penultimate, dualistic properties or universal essentials, the ultimate Forms of the Platonic tradition which merge into Plotinus’s Intellect as it were, just as the yin and yang do in Taoism. You can’t focus on the dualistic philosophical elements alone, particular only one dimension of them (i.e. Ramakrishna’s homoerotic/male-male relationships) and expect to come away with a complete picture of his personality. His personality is deep and wide ranging and has been studied and contemplated by hundreds if not thousands of people since he lived, and his personality emerged from a deep and long social and cultural heritage of the Hindu/Vedic way of life, with its myth and theology as laid out in the Upanishads, the Gita, the Puranas, etc.

Just because the rituals and symbolism of Tantra is more focused on the chakras, kundalini, and the relationship between the core male and female principles of the universe – namely Purusha and Prakriti – doesn’t mean the core teachings, the core philosophy is not more aligned with Vedic proper than it is not. The method, particularly as espoused by Tota Puri and Bhairavi Brahmani his Vedic and Tantric gurus respectively, was no doubt drastically juxtaposed – one teaching the denial of the physical universe and its constituents as the path to ultimate realization, i.e. what Ramakrishna called neti neti or “not this”, “not this” as opposed to the Tantric teachings which are focused on embracing the reality of the world of opposites, the shameful and shameless, the male and the female, to ultimately experience the reality of the experience of consciousness that exists beyond this world of opposites – but that does not mean that the two teachings do not fundamentally agree with each other and complement each other. In fact, this is what Ramakrishna’s spiritual practices ultimately tells us, that the two paths ultimately lead to the same place. How in the world could you spend ten plus years studying the life of Ramakrishna and miss this?   This is the underlying message of Vivekananda really, a Westernization and synthesis of the teachings of Vedanta, Tantra included, for the West as he understood it not only through his own experiences but through his own direct (and extremely intimate of course) understanding of Ramakrishna the person, Ramakrishna the Paramhamsa, Ramakrishna the embodiment of the Vedas (Tantra included) in this age.

One of Kripal’s insights which I think is poignant, and relevant and hard for “insiders” to see sometimes or at least sometimes gloss over, is that Ramakrishna and what he became, the avatar of the modern era, an incarnation of God, great sage, whatever you’d like to refer to him as was a product not only of his personality, but also the culture and society within which he grew up and lived in, namely 19th century Bengal. Ramakrishna was an illiterate temple priest who interacted with some of the most well educated and highest (and lowest) class society of Calcutta, in a time and place where West met East in a radical and somewhat oppressive merging of cultures, the so called “Orientalism” in action where the indigenous Hindu and Indian culture was subsumed by the leading Western and British aristocracy. And with Ramakrishna’s pure and raw language, speaking in the same tongue that Jesus spoke essentially – in song and in analogy and metaphor, using parables and stories that the common folk could understand and remember quite easily – his message clearly resonated with a lot of people, many of whom who traveled long and far to come and spend time with him, to touch his feet as the custom of the Hindus as a sign of respect to holy people.

And yet even with the prevalence of Western modes of thought and scientific reason which was the benchmark of truth even in 19th century Calcutta, his personality had to be understood and had to be reckoned with, and understood and comprehended within the context of the Western cynical mindset. The Hindu, Western trained elite of 19th century Bengali culture could not ignore the strength and purity and power of Ramakrishna’s personality, this much is evident, and is most certainly reflected by his long-lasting and world affecting message that lives on and continues to gain strength in the East and West to this day – through the workings of the institutions which bear his name, the Ramakrishna Order and Ramakrishna Mission who among other things have taken great pains to protect and nurture the direct and subsequent interpretations of his life, works which Kripal directly attacks and denigrates in Kali’s Child. Let’s not forget that Ramakrishna picked Naren (Vivekananda) as his messenger and as the “official” interpreter of Ramakrishna’s life and, along with Sarada his wife and partner, was handpicked to carry on his “work”. The three in fact – Ramakrishna, Sarada and Vivekananda – are worshipped as a triad in the Vedanta centers in the East and West, it is not just Ramakrishna, but his relationship to those two individuals and their expression of his message which are all needed to fully understand who he was and what he truly embodied. This much Kripal would know if he had taken the time to really delve into the very culture that Ramakrishna started and Vivekananda carried forward.

 

A bit of background about myself here is probably necessary so that folks now where I sit relative to the insider vs outsider lines that have been drawn in the debate – the insiders again being those of the Ramakrishna Order who are arguably the closest, most well informed, and most learned in the tradition of the life and teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples given that they have devoted their lives not only to the study of such material but also to the embodiment of what they feel is their teachings as reflected in the institutions that were set up by Vivekananda of which they are a part, and the outsiders being those (primarily) in Western academia that are either not exposed to the traditions or practices and teachings of the Ramakrishna Order or choose to take their teachings and interpretations of the life of Ramakrishna with a grain of salt so to speak, namely in this case Professor Kripal the author of Kali’s Child.

I am a simply a curious scholar with a BA in Ancient Studies from a well accredited undergraduate institution with a Masters in Computer Science whose career has been spent helping build technology companies or the technology infrastructure of consulting companies. Although not a monastic or religious person by any stretch of the imagination, I did spend many years studying with some of the monks of the Ramakrishna Order in NYC, and have been a student of Eastern Philosophy, and a practitioner of meditation, for some 20 years now. Eventually even the dullest of students picks up a thing or two after 20 years of study and I’d like to think that there are at least a few people in this world that are duller than I.

My interests in Eastern Philosophy, the development of theology and monotheism, and comparative religion in general is evident in some of the other pieces I have authored that are present on this blog. I also have a deep interest in science, particularly the advancements of the twentieth century with respect to Relativity and Quantum Theory, and their impact on our overall worldview in the West, in particular with respect to the implications of the role of the “observer” in science itself which now is part of the picture like it or not – i.e. the role of mind in our perspective on the nature of reality and worldview in general cannot really be ignored if Quantum Theory is to be accepted, hence a need from my perspective to relook at some of the Eastern philosophical traditions which uphold the mind as the direct conduit to the divine, Vedanta and Buddhism probably being the best examples of this. I have a book coming out in a few weeks which encapsulates and expands upon some of the work in this blog as well which explores these ideas, and others, in detail but for now you can refer to my blog here for more detail on my thoughts and ideas on these subjects.

So a word on how I encountered the materials at the heart of this debate and how I came to conclude that I, as a humble layperson relative to the other scholars and academics who have weighed in already on this long standing controversy (Kali’s Child was published as an extension to Kripal’s PHD thesis in comparative religious studies in 1995, with a follow on second edition in 1998 and Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana the bulk of which is an attack on Kripal’s theses as well his knowledge of the Vedas and Bengali which is the source language of the Kathamrita was published in 2010), might have something to say that is unique and might shed light on what may be the path that bridges the two sides, or at least identify the essential two seemingly unbridgeable sides of the debate, looks like.

I ran across Kripal’s article Visions of the Impossible a few weeks ago and was struck by the insight Professor Kripal had on the views of some of the ancient philosophies/philosophers that I have been studying and their relevance in theological and comparative religious studies in general even today, very much in line with my views on the topic and rare in the sense that not many in today’s academic circles given these ancient schools of philosophy – particularly Plato and Aristotle of course – their due in forming the basis from which our fields of knowledge, theological or scientific or otherwise, have evolved or been framed even to present day. Again, this is the topic of some of my blog posts and of great interest to me so I immediately felt a connection with Kripal’s perspective on theology and philosophy and wanted to learn more about him and his work.

I subsequently looked him up, saw that he had wrote a book on Ramakrishna with whom I have been fascinated with for many years, as well as Ramakrishna’s Tantric practices in particular of which I am also fascinated by – particularly in Tantra’s focus on the recognition of the reality of the world and its field of opposites, in particular the male and female energies that drive creation (Purusha and Prakriti), and the leverage of the recognition of their reality to lead one to realization of the divine, cosmic consciousness, or whatever one would like to call it. Many of the Vedanta traditions, particularly the variant taught by Vivekananda, emphasize some of the more non-dual aspects of Vedanta and although extremely interesting and extraordinarily rich and profound (and to be fair Vivekananda emphasizes Bhakti or Love & Devotion as a path to the divine as well although it does this in a very non-Tantric way so to speak), can sometimes be difficult for an individual aspirant to grasp and/or realize and practice in the materialistic and capitalistic culture of New York of which I have the great pleasure of residing square in the middle of (an element of sarcasm here, this town is for the insane of which I am clearly a part nowadays, sort of like the ship mates of the famed Flying Dutchman in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie where eventually they simply become merged into parts of the ship).

So I read Kali’s Child, and subsequently read Professor Kripal’s response to the critics of his work (can be found here, and then picked up and read the complete rebuttal of Kripal’s thesis by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana (Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited. Both fascinating and compelling works in their own right and both worthwhile reads for anyone looking to understand the life of Ramakrishna, the 19th century Bengali saint whose life and its meaning are at the center of both works. Although I would certainly recommend Swami Saradananda’s work, the Great Master (in English), as an introduction first before embarking on the adventure of Kripal’s study which in my view at least – siding with many of the academics and scholars who have weighed in on the debate, from inside and outside the Ramakrishna Order – is fundamentally flawed despite what I think are the best of intentions (I’m giving Professor Kripal the benefit of the doubt here, many scholars and academics have not).

So in essence although you could call me a devotee of Ramakrishna, in the sense that I see him as the greatest embodiment of the divine in the last few hundred years of recorded history, unique not only in his purity and the extent of his renunciation but also in the wealth of first hand materials regarding his life and his behavior, but in essence I am Western trained academic who is a householder – i.e. I’ve got kids and their expensive, enshrouded in Ramakrishna’s “maya” – and who is not part of academia per se but a the the same time is very well schooled in Comparative Religion, Eastern Philosophy, and the teachings and lives of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, and the teachings of the Ramakrishna Order which are the lasting gift of Ramakrishna in my view. Certainly I was moved enough to read and write an awful lot about the topic at least, and moved enough to write this post to clarify not only my own position but also try and talk some sense into Professor Kripal, in as respectful a manner as possible. Perhaps it is hubris of me to think that I could have any influence on the debate on this topic but from my standpoint my position is unique – I am not an insider or an outsider really – and perhaps can shed some light here on something that I think has been missed by everyone who has voiced so far on the topic – and that is quite simply do we believe that the state of samadhi (or nirvikalpa samadhi in Ramakrishna’s case), the direct experience of God, or the Satchitananda of the Vedas, is indeed possible.

 

This is what strikes me as the essence of the divide between the two sides of this debate – one represented by Kripal who would have us believe that Ramakrishna’s divine states were the result of unquenched or repressed homoerotic desires (I’m paraphrasing her but that’s the gist of his argument) and the other side of the debate which basically holds that not only is Kripal’s translation/transliteration of some of the source texts off, Kripal is fundamentally missing the socio-cultural context within which Ramakrishna lived and taught and therefore is coming to not only some very erroneous conclusions, but some very disturbing conclusions for anyone who is a devotee of Ramakrishna – is a belief in whether or not the state of what Vedanta (and Ramakrishna) calls samadhi, what Swami Tyagananda attempts to water down and put in some sort of Western psychoanalytical context by referring to it as a “superconsciousness” state (I believe that is the term he uses) actually exists and is possible to experience or realize as an individual human being.

What samadhi is from a Hindu/Vedanta philosophical standpoint covered in some of my other blog posts so I don’t want to recover that ground here but suffice it to say that it is the direct experience of the ultimate grounding of reality where any level of distinction or division that rests at the heart of our perception of physical reality completely and utterly disappears and one merges into “an ocean of consciousness”. I use samadhi here in the Patanjali sense, which in my view is the Yoga 101 manual that should be used as a reference guide. Not the Yogas as put forth by Vivekananda or even the teachings of Ramakrishna and his disciples because as true and enlightening as I believe them to be, by their very nature and source they are discounted by Kripal and his supporters as one sided and self serving views on Vedanta philosophy – a fact I don’t agree with but lets put them aside for now and just deal with Patanjali’s eight limbs. Again, this is Yoga 101.

Kripal’s argument is basically that it is the repressed homoerotic desires of Ramakrishna, as well as the sexual abuses that he supposedly had as a child and as a young adult (of which his evidence is circumstantial at best), that drove and were the source of what can be best be described from Kripal’s point of view as his catatonic and pathological states of mind. Again I am paraphrasing here but that’s basically what he sets out to prove. The other side of the argument however, assumes that these states of “higher” consciousness can and do exist and do not require any sort of trauma or repression in order to be induced. This is done in an altogether roundabout way by describing 19th century Bengal, describing Hindu sadhana practices (spiritual practices), citing various perspectives of those who encountered Ramakrishna directly , etc – and do this very effectively and thoroughly mind you, leaving no doubt in my mind at least that Kripal’s theses in Kali’s Child are way off base and have close to zero grounding in any sort of factual evidence. His only evidence really is Freudian, and I’ll get to him in a moment.

Like it or not, this is the East West divide essentially right now which arguably characterizes not only this debate in my view, but also our current state of civilization – at least from a spiritual perspective. We fall right squarely into the Western atheist, empiricist and deterministic view of reality of the West (of which academia represents to a large degree) versus the holistic and energy based view – we’re all connected – view of the East. The latter view of which is represented certainly by those representatives who sit on the other (insider) side of the debate, i.e. that Ramakrishna’s states of consciousness were in fact real and had no grounding in “sexual repression” or “sexually abusive” behavior towards Ramakrishna by those close to him. The Ramakrishna Order and Mission arguably rests on this very principle, that we are all connected and the relief of the suffering of man, the love of the divine, the practice of meditation and the study of philosophy and metaphysics (Vedanta) all lead to this realization, to this state of mind – i.e. samadhi or what we would call in the Western theological terms, “salvation”.

Kripal never states this specifically, that he doubts that these states are achievable without some sort of trauma that sits behind them, but this seems altogether very evident to me after reading his text, that it is in fact his disbelief in the reality of these higher states of consciousness (again samadhi as outlined by Patanjali, samadhi being the eighth limb and pinnacle of his system of Yoga) that force him into a different intellectual paradigm in order to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior. Enter our friend Sigmund Freud here. But here’s the problem, and Swami Tyagananda in his Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited covers this at some length, Freud does not recognize anything other than the conscious or the unconscious mind. He doesn’t recognize, nor provide any intellectual framework for describing anything that resembles the states of mind that the East consider extraordinarily relevant and “real”. And yet this is the entire world that Ramakrishna lived in from a child from the “insider’s” view of Interpreting Ramakrishna.

To make a case in point here, and I am very surprised that Kripal doesn’t touch on this at all, is that as I understand it this very denial of existence of anything beyond one’s individual conscious or unconscious mind is one of the core differences in opinion which drove the break between Freud and Jung. Jung, extending Freud’s psychoanalytic model, referred to this phenomenon (which Freud rejected) as the collective unconscious, alluding to this shared symbology across individuals. He even used it specifically in his practice to heal his patients (a process which he called individuation where lo and behold he used symbology, personal mandalas for example, which are prevalent in Tantric practices among other Eastern traditions, as tools to guide this healing process).

But if you deny the existence of this collective unconscious – lets stick with some form of psychoanalytic framework here – of which samadhi is no other than a complete merging into, you must lean on some of other psychoanalytic model to explain Ramakrishna’s states of mind and behavior. And here again Kripal brings in Freud who as far as I can gather was as sexually obsessed as any other intellectual in the last two hundred and fifty years. My preference would not be to return to the womb thank you very much, and as far as I can gather I am not driven by some Oedipal complex to eat my mother and my guess is that the majority of society is not either. However, if you want to look through that lens I am sure you can categorize a whole plethora of people’s behavior, Ramakrishna’s included, and the therapeutic models that Freud created I am sure have been and continue to be very helpful to many many people in the West. That however doesn’t make it the right model to try and understand the behavior of a saint who spent virtually his entire adult life merged in states of consciousness which sat completely outside of an independent of Freud’s consciousness or unconsciousness. Ramakrishna refused to recognize the very existence of his physical form, he called it “this body” constantly. He had no identification with his body and it doesn’t take more than a cursory reading of any of the direct source materials about Ramakrishna to come to this conclusion. And yet you want to base your psychoanalytic conclusions about his “secret” on a psychoanalytical system which is fundamental and intrinsically based upon not only the reality of, but the basic supremacy of, the physical form and the understanding of its primary animal instincts and behaviors as the sole driving force of mankind. This is like trying to understanding Quantum Mechanics by using a ruler, a compass, and protractor. You’ve got the wrong tools. Good luck.

My guess is – and this is a guess mind you and I could be wrong – is that Professor Kripal has never practiced meditation (again Patanjali here, Yoga 101), nor has any of his wealth of academic training and studying provided him with any sort of intellectual ground to frame the existence of a man who lives constantly in a state of what David Bohm would call, “undivided wholeness” and what Swami Saradananda described as bhavamukha. I could be wrong here but that’s my guess, and without the ability to directly correspond with him (his email address is nowhere available and considering that he has gotten some death threats after publishing Kali’s Child I can understand that) I would have no way to tell.

I have nothing to add to Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s rebuttal of Kripal’s work, they like many other academics and scholars have done a very thorough job of explaining not only the flaws in Kripal’s argument, but also the flaws in his basic scholarship and understanding of Bengali and Vedanta which as it turns out can be pointed to as the ultimate source of his confusion and incorrect theses and interpretation of Ramakrishna – and this is not a black or white issue here, his these are quite simply wrong, on many levels and how it was published as PHD thesis without the proper level of scrutiny by Hindu/Vedanta scholars is beyond my level of comprehension and speaks to the failure of the academic institutions through which the work originated and came to fruition ultimately as the book Kali’s Child, but the crux of the matter remains in my point of view, and this I believe is why the debate has sparked so much controversy on both sides, is whether or not these states of mind that Ramakrishna supposedly achieved, realized, lived in, experienced or whatever other word you want to choose, actually exist, and are real independent of any sort of psychological defect or pathology as Freud would have us believe (which again Jung staunchly disagreed with him on).

Ramakrishna, as well as his disciples and his disciples’ disciples, as well as thousands of sages throughout the years across a myriad of religious traditions would have us believe that this state, this undivided state of merging in cosmic consciousness (a term unfortunately that Deepak Chopra has coined and made cliché at this point or even a mockery by some atheists – see Jerry Coyne’s work, the evolutionary biologist who is a starch atheist and critic of the term) is actually our more natural state, our true state of being. And that this individual embodiment, this thing we call “I” is an illusion. The West however, and I know this is a broad generalization but Kripal seems to fit squarely in this category, would have us believe that these states of mind can only be explained phenomena though standard psychotherapeutic models, models which (at least the Freudian one that he chose) doesn’t even believe that anything outside the individual mind and its own psychosis has any existence at all.

It’s this core belief, and it is a question of faith after all – no one is going to prove samadhi exists no matter how many yogis or sages experience it over the years – that separates the two sides of this debate as far as I can gather. And as far as I can gather, this very core tenet and thesis of each side, and the broad implications of which side you sit on, has not been brought up by anyone that I have seen voice their opinion on the debate.

If you don’t believe in Jung’s collective unconscious, and you don’t believe that as Ramakrishna taught his disciples that “God can be seen with these very eyes”, or Jesus for that matter that “the kingdom of God is within you”, that is your prerogative. But if you want to study the life of a man whose entire existence lay in this boundary beyond the conscious or the unconscious mind, then you need a paradigm to explain Ramakrishna’s behavior where he could believe such things, teach such things, and make extraordinary, outrageous efforts to achieve such states of realization, enter Freud’s model for Kripal which is again wholly inadequate for trying to interpret or understands Ramakrishna – metaphysically, intellectually and culturally. If you do believe these higher states of consciousness exists and that we can tap into them ourselves, which was the core teaching of not only Ramakrishna by the way but also his disciple Vivekananda, Jesus and Buddha as well, then Freud’s model of the psyche becomes wholly inadequate as an explanatory tool. It doesn’t even have a word to explain the whole paradigm within which these experiences happen or occur, if they can be said to happen or occur at all. At least Jung gave it a word – the collective unconscious – providing a metaphysical framework from within which these experiences could be viewed.

Its like quite frankly trying to build a model of the universe where the Earth is the center – it kind of makes sense but it doesn’t really map to reality, where the earth revolves around the sun and the sun exists in a great galaxy of stars. Freud would have us believe that the world revolves around us, our small minds and egos, our individual selves and our cravings and desires, and this is the explanation of all of our behavior and it is through this lens that Kripal views Ramakrishna and it is through this lens in fact that he views Tantra, or at least Ramakrishna’s practice of Tantra, and it is for this reason that not only are his conclusions are wrong, but the tools that he has chosen from within which to view Ramakrishna are not even valid. And yes, I am stating unequivocally that the belief that every mind on the planet is governed by Freudian like psychology and behavior is also false and I am sure many many people would disagree with me on this but irrespective of whether or not you believe in Freudian psychology no one has put forth an argument that would indicate that this is a lens that is appropriate at any level for viewing the behavior of Ramakrishna, or any Indian/Eastern sage or saint for that matter. What conclusions would you come to if you tried to view the Dalai Lama though a Freudian lens?   What pathology would you point to for explaining his behavior of dedicating his life to reliving the sufferings of all mankind and promoting harmony throughout the world? Or Buddha for that matter?

But the other side here, a divide which can only be crossed by personal experience yourself. And if you want a scientific approach for this again, I suggest Yoga 101, our old friend Patanjali. It’s been around a while and lots of people have tried it and the effects are pretty well documented at this point, physiological, mental and otherwise. And from this practice you can decide for yourself whether or not to believe that there is a level of interconnectedness of the all beings, sentient and non-sentient, which can be experienced directly, which most devotees of Ramakrishna not only believe he experienced but that he actually lived in constantly.

To quote a relevant passage from virtually the end of Interpreting Ramakrishna, Kali’s Child Revisited, a very apt quotation which defines at least some basic criteria required in order to come to at least some sort of understanding of who Ramakrishna was and what he represents outside of being a complete madman which to any untrained eye he would most certainly appear as such (emphasis is authors):

 

First and most importantly, a respectful acceptance of the possibility, crucial to understanding Hindu religious figures, that the reality behind the universe and the reality behind an individual – known respectively as Brahman and Atman – may be interrelated, even identical, and are essentially divine in nature. Secondly, Ramakrishna studies should include the possibility that the external reality as we experience it may not be the only, or even the most important, reality. Thirdly, this expanded paradigm would consider the limitations of human reason and the possibility of a different kind of knowledge that transcends (but does not contradict) reason. Fourthly, the expanded paradigm would include the possibility that human beings could fully realize and manifest their innate divinity by overcoming the identification with the body and mind to which gender and sexuality are tied.[1]

 

So for Professor Kripal specifically then, I would ask a simple question as a Comparative Religious scholar and Professor of some repute, would you not require your advanced students to be properly schooled in the philosophy and teachings of the religious traditions which they are studying? Would you have them write PHD thesis on Islam or Christianity by simply reading the Qur’an or the Bible? Or would you ask them to go in the field, worship as the objects of their studies worship to greater understand their faith – not just the words that sit on a page, and from there try to come up with an original thesis about their religion and how it sits relative to other world religions which have and continue to have a profound effect on the people in today’s world and the people in the history of mankind. Essentially as a Professor I would think you would prod your students to do their homework first, just as you prod your critics to do many of whom you state haven’t read your book and just as I have been prodded by some of my Professors and teachers over the years.

Well I read it, every last word, and where I land for whatever my humble opinion is worth If you want to judge or interpret the life of a yogi, practice yoga for a good while or at least sit at the feet of someone who has for a good while. Just as if I wanted to judge the mind or thought process of a world renowned professional tennis player, architect, or artisan of any kind, or to have really anything at all intelligent to say on the matter, one needs to have spent an awful lot of time studying, practicing and literally “getting into the mind of” the object of study first before making any assumptions on what they might have thought, or how they might have thought, or what could have propelled them to greatness. And if that individual were no longer with us, one would think that in order to understand them and best as possible one would read ALL of the first-hand accounts about that person, and then try and get a better understanding of who they were or what drove their creative spirit which so profoundly left its mark on the world. For Ramakrishna if nothing else was a yogi, and to try and look him, or Tantra even, through the lens of psychoanalysis which is a field entirely designed to treat medically ill people (and I have plenty of experience with psychoanalysis both directly and indirectly here so please for all you detractors do not hinge on the “power” of Freudian psychology), you are not only barking up the wrong tree, you’re invariably going to come to all sorts of erroneous conclusions.

Given Kripal’s work in the paranormal now, as evidenced from the initial article I read, my guess is eventually you will come to some of these conclusions yourself if you have not already. But until then, until you can sit quietly for an hour on a regular basis and focus your attention on something, anything at all – a mandala, a mantra, a picture, anything – and do it for a few years, I would advise you to keep your opinions about the life of a sage who spent six months in direct contemplation of the divine completely uninterrupted, or those who have dedicated their lives to the practice of meditation and serving others as the monks of the Ramakrishna Order have, whose teachings and scholarship you have directly attached and called into question, to yourself.

Furthermore, I would ask you if one of your students published Kali’s Child and whose scholarship was subsequently taken apart as forcefully, completely and thoroughly as yours has done by later scholars (speaking specifically about Swami Tyagananda’s and Pravrajika Vrajaprana’s work criticizing the thesis and underlying scholarship of Kali’s Child) I would ask you what you would advise your student to do? Continue to defend a thesis which is altogether entirely indefensible (which if you haven’t come to this conclusion yourself by now I truly feel sorry for your students of Comparative Religion) or perhaps get a third edition of the book to press, correct the myriad of linguistic and philosophical inconsistencies and misunderstandings that plague the work itself, as well as issue a letter of apology to the Ramakrishna Order for calling into question their scholarship from top to bottom, while at the same time hiding behind some sort of perverse (excuse the pun) reverse racism or accusations of homophobia rather than simply defending your argument.

We all make mistakes, one’s character is defined by how we manage through them and what corrections and modifications we make to not only ourselves, but also the work which we produce as well as the people that we hurt along the way. None of us are exceptions to this basic human philosophy – be we a Ramakrishna “insider”, a Western academic “outsider”, an Easterner holistic philosopher or practice of yoga, or a Western rational deterministic empirical realist.

 

 

[1] Interpreting Ramakrishna: Kali’s Child Revisited by Swami Tyagananda and Pravrajika Vrajaprana, 2010. Pg 397.

The Philosophy of the East: The Legacy of the Indo-Aryans

Introduction

Throughout academic parlance in the Enlightenment Era intellectual and philosophical development throughout mankind’s history has been divided into Eastern and Western branches.  The Eastern branch of thought and development for many centuries was looked upon as “Oriental”, a term that has fallen out of favor in academic and intellectual circles in no small measure due to the fact that it implied and originated within the context of the colonization of a good part of the “Eastern” world and Western academic pursuits into understanding the nature of theological and philosophical, as well as socio-political development of the so-called East – an outsiders view that came with its own bias that is considered by most scholars to be one of supremacy and dominance that looked down upon the cultural and religious systems of the East with not disdain per se but most certainly with a sense of arrogance and superiority.

The problem however, despite these known biases, is that the classification of East versus West does have a certain clarity and clean delineation in modes of thought however, modes of thought that are divided at least intellectually by what could be termed reductionist versus holistic.  In other words, even if the classification of certain ways of thinking and development as a whole doesn’t have a specific geographical divide between East and West (although one could argue that in fact does), the tendency to break things down into parts and explore their relationships as individual automata and their interactions does in fact characterize Western thinking more or less since Hellenistic antiquity and the tendency to look at individuals within the context of their relationship to the whole, or the universe at large, does in fact characterize “Eastern” modes of thought to a great extent.

Charlie had spent a great deal of time considering and outlining as best he could the theological and philosophical development in the West, starting with ancient cosmological and theistic systems based upon the worship of deities, sacrificial practices and such that were steeped in mythology and then evolved into the monotheistic forms of religion which we are most familiar with and dominate the Western intellectual and theological landscape today – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and out of which, mostly in reaction to, arose our fascination toward science proper which although has allowed for great advancements in science and technology has to a large extent left us with a very objective and reductionist view of reality.

There were parallel developments to the East however, to the East of ancient Greece, Rome and the Byzantine Empire which evolved very much independently to Western theological and philosophical development.  Specifically we’re referring to the Vedic and Indo-Aryan tradition which arose out of ancient India based upon the philosophy of the Upanishads, the mythology of the Bhagavad Gita, Brahma Sutras and other ancient Indian texts and their subsequent interpretation from 2500 BCE onwards, the tradition of Buddhism which stemmed from the teachings of the great and influential Siddhartha Gautama who himself was greatly influenced by ancient Vedic religious doctrines and practices even if he rejected them for the most part, and in Taoism which took root in China and the far east from the middle of the first millennia onwards and still thrives today.  These theological and philosophical systems of belief are interesting to analyze not just in the wisdom which they present but also as contrasting and opposing modes of thought to the reductionist and rationalist way of thinking which underpins modern science as well as the overall worldview of the West.

Arguably one of the unique contributions of Indo-Aryan philosophy (to which Vedanta and Buddhism ultimately owe their heritage) to modern day theology and spirituality is their fundamental belief in the individual nature of the religious experience and the faith in what is variously referred to as “realization”, “liberation”, “enlightenment”, or “nirvana” all of which are various terms used to describe the state or act of direct experience of the divine in this very life – juxtaposed with the focus on an afterlife in heaven which characterizes most if not all of the Western theological traditions.  This fundamental belief lies at the heart of the Vedic philosophical system, which is the philosophical and mystical counterpart of Hinduism proper, as well the theo-philosophical system of Buddhism.  [Taoism has a slightly different bent in that it focuses on the way and the balancing of opposites as the path to peace, tranquility and happiness rather than as enlightenment itself being the ultimate goal of life, more akin to Buddhism with its emphasis on the way than Vedanta per se].

 

What is Vedanta?

The ancient Indo-Aryan civilization sprung forth in the Indus valley region in modern day India and Pakistan (to the ancients Eastern Persia), and was the source of the “Vedas”, some of the oldest extant literature of mankind.  This ancient Indus Valley civilization, from which one of the great world renowned religions called Hinduism was birthed, spread and flourished in the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent from circa 3300 to 1300 BCE, roughly aligning with the peak of ancient Egyptian civilization although contact between the two civilizations was limited if not absent entirely based upon the archeological record.  The civilization from which Hinduism emerged is traditionally associated with the Indus valley, a river system from which an ancient culture could grow crops and thrive, a similar relationship to the Sumerians and their Tigris/Euphrates and the Egyptians and their Nile.  This relationship with water and its fundamental existence and prerequisite feature for the source of life, clearly left its mark on the Cosmology and creation mythology of all of these ancient cultures.  The Hindus believed in the Cosmic Waters (apas in Sanskrit) as the source of the known universe, just as the Egyptians had their concept of Nu and the Ancient Sumerians had their Apsu.[2]

Their theological doctrines and philosophy, as reflected in the Vedas, was a core part of their society and from a very early stage and the social structure even was architected to reflect this, namely that the sacred teachings of the Vedas were to be protected by a specific class of society, the Brahmins.  In some respects the establishment of a priestly, learned class that was kept separate from the rest of the society (the Kshatriya or ruling/warrior class, the Vaishyas or the merchant class and the Shudras or laborers being the other classes of society in classic Hindu culture) reflected developments to the West where first the priests, then the philosophers and then finally the Church itself (the Imam in the Muslim community) became the established authority on matters dealing with intellectual development, education, or course religious matters and ultimately eternal freedom.

Although in antiquity Vedānta referred more specifically to the philosophic portion of the Vedas (Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas”), the bulk of the content coming from the Upanishads, over time Vedanta took on a broader meaning to represent the body of work and knowledge that interpreted the meaning of the Upanishads, which in turn incorporated the Bhagavad Gita and Brahma Sutras more directly into the philosophic tradition.

The primary sources for what is considered modern day Vedanta are three main collections of verses or texts are the Upanishads[3], representing the end of the Vedas or the philosophical and mystical portions of the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” from the epic poem the Mahabharata, and the Brahma Sutras which was an attempt at consolidating and synthesizing Vedantic philosophy from the 2nd or third century CE.  Vyasa is the supposed author attributed to the works of the Mahabharata and the Brahma Sutras, while the Upanishads are considered to be the divine inspiration of the rishis, or seers, who fully realized and codified the knowledge of Brahman as put forth in the Upanishads.  The three works together are also referred to as the Prasthanas, or canonical books, that form the foundation of the philosophy of Vedanta and form the foundation of Hindu religion even to this day.

The Vedas are the oldest Indo-Aryan Sanskrit[4] texts and are the oldest extant Hindu scripture.  The Sanskrit word véda means “knowledge” or “wisdom” and is derived from the root vid, “to know”.  Like many other religious traditions, the Vedas are said not to have been recorded and authored per se, but were revealed to these ancient rishis, passed down from generation o generation from teacher to student in a long standing oral tradition, and then documented and transcribed by scholars and sages somewhere between the second and first millennium BCE.  Vedanta, somewhat literally translated as “the end”, or “goal”, of the Vedas, represents the philosophical or metaphysical tradition of the Hindus and represents the philosophical portions of the Vedas, i.e. the portions of the Vedas that do not deal with sacrifice, ritual or dharma (righteous action).

Vedānta is also sometimes referred to as Uttarā-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘latter’ or ‘higher’ inquiry, as juxtaposed with Purva-Mīmāṃsā, or the ‘former’ inquiry which deals with ritual and sacrifice described in the Samhita portion of the Vedas and Brahmanas while Vedanta proper expounds upon the more esoteric teachings of the Āranyakas and the Upanishads.  As defined by Shankara, perhaps the greatest of all the Vedic philosophers in antiquity, the term Upanishad is in effect a veiled reference to the content of the Upanishad itself, namely Brahmavidya, knowledge of Brahman, and Atmavidya, knowledge of Self.

The corpus of Vedic texts, all transcribed in some form of Sanskrit, include the Samhita, which are collections of mantras from the four Vedas, the Brahmanas which are prose texts that describe Hindu sacrifice and ritual, some of the older Upanishads such as the Mukya, Chandogya, Katha and Brhadaranyaka which deal with esoteric ideas and concepts describing the nature of Brahman and the soul (Atman), and other sutra (literally “thread”) literature dealing with Hindu rituals and sacred rites.  Each of the Brahmanas is associated with one of the Samhitas and may also include Aranyakas, literally “forest texts”, as well as Upanishad texts which again represent the philosophical and metaphysical, or perhaps better put mystical, interpretations of the sacred rituals.

Parts of the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, as well as Upanishads explore what have become the theological underpinnings of Hinduism, notions such as Brahman, the absolute or underlying nature of all things, and Atman, the individuation of the principle of Brahman in man or the soul as it is usually translated, the relationship of which represents the core pillars of Vedic philosophy.  The Upanishads however form the philosophical backbone of Vedanta and much like the ancient scripture of the Jews (Old Testament) or Zoroastrians (Avesta), the Upanishads and the rest of the Vedic scripture in toto represent an oral tradition that reaches deep into antiquity that was only later documented, dated by most scholars in the second and first millennium BCE.

The oldest parts of Vedic literature, the Rig Veda for example, give us a glimpse of the life of the Indo-Aryan  peoples who first settled and formed complex social structures in the Indus Valley some seven thousand years or so ago and the nature of the language of old Vedic Sanskrit points to shared linguistic and philological with Indo-Iranian culture and civilization that populated the region to the West dominated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Rig Veda is one of, if not the, primary source texts of mythology, rituals and belief systems of the people of the Indus Valley region, and is one of the oldest extant texts in the Indo-European language family.  It is thought to have been composed somewhere in the middle or end of the second millennium BCE (based upon philological and corroborated archeological evidence), roughly between 1700 and 1100 BCE.  Even though the text is interspersed with mythology and outlines the characters and principles from which the known universe was birthed, the text also states unequivocally the unknowable nature of the source of the universe/cosmos, marking its core philosophical bent and providing the foundation for the later Upanishads which were primarily concerned with the nature of Brahman and Atman and their realization and manifestation rather than mythology per se.

Fundamental to the Upanishad texts themselves and the broader Vedanta philosophic tradition as a whole is the establishment of the importance of self-realization as the goal of life.  In the Upanishads it is Brahman that represents the universal spirit that underlies all of the cosmos and all of its creation and it is through connection with Atman is that the individual can recognize their unity with all pervading Brahman.  This knowledge is called “Brahmavidya, or literally knowledge of Brahman, which reveals to the jiva the illusory nature of physical reality or maya, the universe being the “play”, lila of Ishvara. Brahman as espoused in the Upanishads, despite the tendency toward anthropomorphization, represents the ultimate unity of all things and creatures, animate and inanimate, and the belief in an indelible construct or consciousness which pervades the entire universe and which feeds and gives energy to all life.

 

Interpretations of Vedanta

The first attempt at compiling and synthesizing the teachings of Vedanta, their interpretation as it were, is contained in the Brahma Sutras (sometimes referred to as the Vedānta Sutras) which are believed to have been written somewhere around the 2nd century CE, the text being attributed to the mythical sage Vyasa who is also the author to whom the Mahabharata is attributed.  The Brahma Sutras are part of the Uttara-Mimamsa (Vedantic) tradition and are in essence a summary and compilation of the teachings of the Upanishads.  It is in the Brahma Sūtras that the teachings of Vedānta are set forth in a systematic and logical order, rather than the scattered and somewhat inconsistent manner which the teachings are presented in the Vedas given their deep historical and sometimes esoteric roots and their focus on ritual and sacrifice.

The Bhagavad Gita, or the “Song of the Lord”, has also played a significant role in the development of Vedantic thought over the centuries.  The text is a part of the ancient Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata of which some of its oldest parts date from the middle or early part of the first millennium BCE.  The Bhagavad Gita is a portion of this mythological epic text and is a narrative of a dialogue between Lord Krishna and Prince Arjuna that takes place on the eve of a great battle.  Arjuna, whose name means “bright” or “shining”, is one of the five Pandava brothers, all sons of Pandu who are aligned against their cousins the Kauravas, descendents of Kuru in the Kurukshetra War.  This is he stage from which Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, gives his great teaching around the nature of duty, the soul, the universe and the path to liberation – the “Song of the Lord” which is undoubtedly one of the greatest epics of all time commensurate in stature and influence to the East as the Iliad or the Odyssey is in the West.

Arjuna voices to Lord Krishna great reservations and misgivings about the righteousness of the war in general and more specifically the duty to kill his enemies, who in this particular case were his cousins.  Krishna at one point in the dialogue reveals himself as God in a great vision to Arjuna and represented an example of the avatar tradition which is a marked and unique trait of the Hindu faith.  An avatar is a human incarnation of the divine, one who although is none other than the great Ishvara himself takes human form from time to time to show jivas the true nature of existence and lay out the path to liberation for each new age.

Krishna helps Arjuna understand why he must fight, and why it is morally right for him to do so, and the context of this dialogue forms the essence of the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita.  In the process of his expositions, Lord Krishna expounds upon key Vedantic philosophical constructs such as moksha (liberation), karma (action), and dharma (righteous conduct), forming the foundation of the practice of Yoga and helping the great prince understand that while it may seem immoral for him to go to war with his kin, it is nonetheless his duty to do so and it would in fact be immoral to abstain from fighting.  The metaphor is intended of course to not only justify the class differentiation which represented the fabric of ancient Hindu society but to hold Arjuna up to its people as a “shining” example of the just and moral life.

Outside of the esoteric notions of Brahman and Atman which are explored and eulogized in the more esoteric parts of Vedic scripture, there does also exist in the tradition a parallel notion of anthropomorphic deities consistent with the pantheon of gods that colored the mythology of the rest of the cultures from antiquity – The Greeks, Persians, Romans, Egyptians, etc.  This concept of God, or Ishvara, is present in the Upanishads and the Vedas as well (and is topic of the Puranas, one of the other canonical works of Hinduism proper), but at least within Vedanta is subservient to the higher, more abstract, truths elucidated throughout the Vedic literature –   Brahman alone is real, and it is through knowledge and realization of Atman and its ultimate unity with Brahman that the cycle of birth and death can be broken and the bondage of desire and attachment be rent asunder.

The core premise of the Upanishads and Vedanta in general then, and what distinguishes the philosophical system from the Western philosophical and theological traditions, is the belief in each individual’s (Atman) ultimate unity with the divine light that permeates the entire universe that is omnipresent and all-pervading (Brahman), and the intrinsic innate ability of all individual souls (jivas), to achieve the experience of this unity directly and therefore become fully realized beings free from all suffering and bondage – a state called moksha in Sanskrit.  Although from the absolute perspective, Brahman and Atman are one and the same, indistinguishable entities, we do not realize this as such due to our belief in the reality of the human form and the physical world, the ultimate source of all suffering and delusion according to Vedanta.  [One can see the clear parallels to Buddhist doctrine here despite the different semantics and the different focus on the “path” rather than the esoteric philosophy itself.]

Brahman then, as conceived by the Hindus which is the word we use in modern parlance to describe the people of India who descend from the people of the Indus Valley region, is a self-evident construct that was is not just as old as civilization itself, it is in fact as old as mankind and is the source of life.  The ancient Vedic religion from which Vedanta emerged was steeped in ritual no doubt, consistent with all of the hunter-gatherer societies throughout the world and from which modern civilization eventually evolved, but the essence of the rituals was not lost and the highest form of teaching in the Vedic tradition was not the rituals per se, but the meaning behind the rituals, an idea that was part of the tradition itself since inception.

While the Hindus kept their various gods and goddesses, they also held true to the messages of the great rishis of old and laid out perhaps a sophisticated system of psychology, theology and metaphysics whose ultimate objective was the realization that God (Brahman) did in fact exist, could in fact be realized just as clearly as the realization of the world of objects all around us are realized by our (physical) senses, and that in fact we as humans were fundamentally designed for this realization, our individual consciousness being simply a reflection of this broader sometimes anthropomorphized principle of the universe, i.e. Brahman.  According to the Hindu faith, this heaven on earth so to speak was the birth right of all of us – no passage or gateway or ticketing required.

The authors of Vedic scripture in fact took pains to apply as systematic and comprehensive an intellectual framework as possible, alongside guidelines on morality and ethics that were based upon virtues like justice and duty, in contrast to its Western religious brethren that laid out more specific rules of conduct that were baked into the fabric of the theology – a trademark of Judaism and Islam and a source of much of their rigidity and inflexibility to adapt to modern times in many respects.

 

The End of the Vedas: Yoga and Samadhi

Another aspect of the teaching which was unique was the metaphysics and theology laid out the reality of a divine superconscious state, samadhi in the Yogic branch of Vedanta, which corresponds more or less to the Buddhist concept of nirvana, along with a natural philosophy and system of ethics which for the most part – independent of the caste system, remnants of which can still be found in modern India – evolved independent of authority and power.  Although the Hindu caste system which is embedded in the fabric of Vedic literature had/has its draw backs no doubt, reflecting a system that is anything but a meritocracy, one advantage to the system is that there is a clear demarcation between the ruling class – Kshatriya to which Arjuna belongs – and the priestly class, the Brahmins, allowing for independent development of philosophic thought and “freedom of religion” so to speak that is definitely not a characteristic of Western theological development.  This separation of classes allowed sages over the centuries to pursue the end of these Vedas without the risk of persecution.

In Hinduism then, and in its branches like Buddhism (for Buddhism is to the Hindus what Judaism is to the Christians, Buddha was a Hindu like Jesus was a Jew) presumed this fundamental distinction between church and state, or perhaps more aptly put this individuation (to borrow a Jungian term) of religion.  The Hindus did not codify these separation principles into law per se, as has been done in modern American and European society (i.e. the West) after centuries of religious persecution, but the principle of religious freedom represented a core, integral part of Hindu culture just the same.

And from this social acceptance of the individual expression of the divine, many great sages and seers, known as rishis , had been born since the dawn of man that perennially personified this apex and goal of the Hindu religious system – namely the realization of the divine in this very life.  The Indo-Aryan theological tradition (which includes Buddhism and Yoga as well as Hinduism/ Vedanta) more so than any other allows for, and in fact insists upon, the existence of sages and seers throughout history who literally incarnate the divine and eternal truth underlying the universe and re-establish the core tenets of the Vedas, translating the eternal message for each era and each people as the need arises.  Krishna, Buddha, and Chaitanya, Ramakrishna and countless others are examples of incarnations where Ishvara himself has taken human form to shed light upon the mysteries of the universe.

These great sages, these rishis, personified the goal of oneness with the divine, the perception of the kingdom of heaven within, and realized the end of the Hindu scriptures.  And they all accomplished this in their own unique way and yet at the same time each of them reestablished the validity of these ancient scriptures, renewing the people’s faith in their content and precepts which had been born so many thousands of years prior.  To all of these great sages the mind and body, and reason and logic itself, was to be used to realize the truth of this oneness.  That was its sole purpose of existence.  This truth was the great gift that was handed down from the ages from the Vedas.

 

 


[2] You could argue that all of these traditions stemmed from one ancient source mythology, and in fact some scholars in modern times had started looking at and for such similar roots as put forth by E.J. M. Witzel in his The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, but it seems more plausible that an explanation of the similarities in the cosmologies of these ancient civilizations stems from individual cultures and societies having similar challenges and relationships with the environment which governed their existence from which their similar mythologies emerged, which in each case was defined by their relationship with the river system that their civilization grew and evolved around.  The river system was the source of their food and sustenance, and framed their idea of the passage of time and sense of order.  Therefore these basic principles were reflected in each of the different civilization’s cosmology to a large extent.

[3] The word Upanishad is derived from the Sanskrit root sad, which means to ‘to loosen’ or ‘‘to attain’ or even ‘to annihilate’, combined with the prefixes “upa” and “ni”, which denote ‘nearness’ or ‘sitting beside’ and ‘totality’ respectively.  You can therefore translate the meaning of Upanishad to mean something along the lines of “that which is attained completely and entirely whilst sitting beside or near to”, referring to the tradition of sitting beside a teacher and learning, the educational practice that is embedded in the Vedic tradition itself from inception.

[4] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit.  Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day.  This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

The Royal Yoga: Patanjali’s Eight Limbs

Charlie was young and naïve enough to believe in his younger days that he could create a new paradigm of reality that assimilated the scientific empiricism of the West with the mystic, meditation of the East.  This is what he and Jenry had toyed around with back in his undergrad days when they had nothing better to do than sit around their run down old apartment, smoke bowls and philosophize about the meaning of life.  An activity as it turned out that became interwoven into Charlie’s thesis in a way he never imagined but he did never quite sort out that 5 dimensional mathematical model beyond anything more than a pencil and paper and some poorly hand drawn images/graphs.

In this model that Charlie conceived of, the individual mind, with meditation as its primary and ultimate source, was the foundation of a reality within which the paradigms of the two seemingly opposite and contradictory views of life – the material and spiritual – could be integrated into a single mathematical model of the universe, be seen as two sides of the same coin.  That endeavor proved illusory though, perhaps too much work for the gladiator to take on, and too much complex math.  And at the time Charlie was into different matters, leading of course to his “extended” thesis work; there were trophies to win, opponents to crush, spoils to be won.  All much more important than trying to dig into multi-dimensional, entirely hypothetical mathematical (and relatively outrageous) models of reality.  First things first for heavens sake.

But Charlie’s thesis, and the attack on the subjective which was the essence of Niels’s position, did form a springboard for Charlie to take a deeper look into this subjective vs. objective world. The same one that Pirsig tried to overcome with his Metaphysics of Quality, but yet still ending up in this same place, one where the intellectual model of reality was framed in a language which had within it the implication of subjects and objects, despite the notion of Quality from which Pirsig attempted to try and build his model, his metaphysics, around.  So Charlie tried to build a cohesive argument for Niels, one that again centered around the fallacy of relying on Reason and Intellect as the hall bearers of truth, and one that just might help him see the light of day.

And as he tried to formulate this argument, he came to the conclusion that Niels had a point, he did, and he most certainly reflected the position of many modern fundamentalist Christian or Muslims for that matter, and even hard core physicists and mathematicians – materialists or objectivists you could call them – who thought meditation and any sort of direct experience of pure consciousness was a fool’s errand that may have some health benefits but couldn’t be considered science, upon which the notion of “reality” in the West was ultimately based, in any meaningful way.

He had begun his argument by exploring the concept of the subjective itself.  What could be considered objective truth?  In every encounter or situation in each person’s life, there is continuity.  That is to say that throughout one’s span of existence, there is always something that binds experience together.  Usually we call this something “I”.  This wasn’t something novel that Charlie had come up with, this was in essence the cogito ergo sum of Descartes, a Western interpretation if you will of age old Eastern philosophical notion of the mind.

But what is this “I” that lays at the foundation of our very existence.  We assume at every corner that we exist.  But have we really delved into the nature of this “I” that provides the framework for our lives?  Charlie believed that the answer to this question to be a resounding “NO!”  Certainly the philosophers throughout the ages had, and the mystics and shamans before them most certainly had, there was plenty of evidence for this as Charlie dug into the development of Western thought for his thesis.  But the everyday folk, the ones that ran the banks and the schools and were in Congress and ran countries, had they really?  Wasn’t this one of the primary themes of Plato, and even the Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi of the 10th century, the importance of the role of the philosopher in society.  Where had this notion gone?  Had it been lost somewhere or was it never really adopted outside of a theoretical construct of a philosopher or two throughout the ages?

And he thought it was here that the main distinction between the East and the West lay.  The eastern philosophical systems believed taught that the search for the nature of “I” represented the ultimate task of life, whereas the western systems relied on objective proof, verifiable results from the interaction between hosts of objects, as the basis for life and reality.  And Charlie thought that it was this obsession with duality, the distinction between subject and object, although the cornerstone to scientific method and the means by which civilization has made so many significant advancements no doubt, had perhaps become an obstacle to the discovery of the very meaning of life itself.  The quest for the answer to that age old question, as old as man itself: “Why are we here and from whence we came?” had been relegated to the world of religion, a marked deviation from Aristotle in fact, where the question of why – causation – was in fact the pillar upon which knowledge was built.

Charlie didn’t know it then, but his very physical and to him very real in the Western sense of the term, practice of the attainment of peak performance on the tennis court, the search for the Zone, from which his journey into Yoga and the art of meditation began, was very much akin to the practice of Kundalini Yoga, or Raja Yoga as espoused by the notorious Samkhya philosopher Patanjali.  From his studies of the works of Vivekananda, as well as his practice of Yoga in general, Charlie kind of knew what Raja Yoga, and the principle of kundalini meant, but he hadn’t quite made the translation to competitive sports quite yet, at least not in the beginning.

And yet in fact, when he strove to achieve peak performance, when he entered that world of complete concentration, achieved via the performance of those subtle rituals on court, what he was really doing was cultivating the control of his kundalini, or inner force, and attempting to leverage it to squeeze every ounce of physical and mental performance out of that frail, physical form of his call the human ‘body’.  Kundalini Yoga, or Hatha Yoga, is a very physical and exact science in many respects, its principles are based upon the artificial inducement of energy through the chakras in the body to achieve or reach higher states of consciousness, effectively the same process Charlie was attempting to bring about do to achieve peak performance.

Raja Yoga on the other hand, the Yoga described by Patanjali in his eight limbs, has a different focus than Hatha or Kundalini Yoga, although it shares with it some of the very same principles and methods.  In the case of Raja Yoga the focus is on the control and purification of the mind, the mental sheathe of the jiva, rather than focus on the physical sheathe, although even in Patanjali’s system, there is a preparatory focus on the physical system as reflected in the 3rd and 4th “limbs” of his eight limbed system which has come to be known collectively in the West as Yoga, namely asana, “posture” or “seat”, and pranayama, “breath” or “life force” control.

Both these limbs however are looked upon in Patanjali’s system as preparatory for higher states of concentration and experiences of consciousness however, as indicated by the last four limbs of Patanjali’s system namely pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses from the external world of name and form, dharana, concentration of the mind on a single physical object, deity or symbol, dyhana, steadfast and unwavering concentration on said object (the act of meditation and the object of meditation remain distinct in this phase), and ultimately samadhi, where the distinction between the object of meditation and the meditator falls away and unity is directly “experienced”.  All of these limbs in Patanjali’s system are meant to hang together and be practiced collectively and constantly, and the physical aspects of Yoga, which are emphasized in most if not all of the Western adaptations of his system, are but a means to the end and not an end in and of themselves.

 

Raja Yoga is one of the four Hindu philosophical systems that Swami Vivekananda taught and integrated into a holistic approach to enlightenment in the modern era all based upon the timeless teachings of Vedanta in one form or another, interpreted for the West in a language that we could understand.  In fact Vivekananda coined the term Raja, or Royal Yoga, given his perspective on its importance within the four pillars of Yoga that were necessary to lead a balanced and liberated life in what he saw, and Charlie certainly was exposed to the same thing, an overly materialistic and capitalistic culture whose main focus was the betterment of the individual at the expense of the whole.

But you can’t really truly understand Raja Yoga unless you have some sort of background in its underlying philosophy which is Samkhya philosophy.  Samkhya is one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy and is fundamentally atheistic, i.e. it’s philosophy does not adhere to or believe in the existence of any anthropomorphic God or deity, but instead believes the universe to be a manifestation of an underlying ground of existence Purusha, the male aspect of the cosmos which when acted upon and combined with the generative female force of the universe, Prakriti, brings about the existence of the physical universe it its various forms as we perceive it.  Samkhya is a fundamentally dualistic philosophy, in the sense that it lays out more than one fundamental principle from which the universe comes into existence, namely the inert Purusha combined with the active principle of Prakriti.  This is juxtaposed for example with Advaita Vedanta where the individual Soul, or Atman, is considered to be one and the same and fundamentally indivisible from the universal Soul, or Brahman, classified accordingly as a non-dualist philosophical system.

In Samkhya philosophy the individual Soul, or Jiva, is bound to its physical form due to desire, desire for pleasure and desire for life.  It is desire that is the glue that binds the jiva to the manifest, physical reality which we all perceive as the human condition.  But this is not the true state of reality, it’s not purest and most unadulterated perspective on reality, and at its core is based upon ignorance of the true nature of the universe and our place in it.  The underlying premise of this philosophical system then is that it is only through the false identification one’s small self, or ego (ahamkara), that the jiva perceives itself as a separate and unique entity bound to a physical form which is subject to birth, growth, decay and ultimate death and destruction, characterized most emphatically by suffering and loss, in this sense it shares many of the same characteristics of Buddhism but its underlying philosophy, as well as the path which it lays out for liberation, are altogether different[1].  In Samkhya philosophy however, and in turn in Yoga as it is interpreted by Patanjali, it is through self-knowledge, atma-bodha, that true liberation can be achieved, where the shroud of ignorance is removed and one’s true identity with the underlying ground of existence, Purusha, is ultimately realized and experienced directly.

It is from this philosophical perspective then that Patanjali articulated his system of Yoga, which lays out, in very much the same way as Buddha laid out his Noble Eightfold Path, the steps and principles upon which one should lead their life in order to facilitate the attainment of this state of perfection, or samadhi.  Yoga as outlined by Patanjali emphasizes the importance of posture, asana, control of the breath, pranayama, and concentration, dharana, all as key tools to be employed by the spiritual aspirant who wishes to be liberated from the bondage of phenomenal existence and ultimately to experience the pure state of consciousness itself, i.e. samadhi, but what is most often overlooked, particularly in the West, is that these physical and mental practices are grounded in a thorough and in many respects unyielding system of morals, ethics and observances that prepare the aspirant, provide the foundation for the aspirant, upon which the more advanced limbs of Yoga are to be based.  The first 2 limbs of Yoga reflect this focus on the necessary grounding of ethics and morality, the way to live, to prepare oneself for the path to liberation, namely yama and niyama.

Yama consists of five “abstentions”; ahimsa, non-violence, satya, truth in thought word and deed, asteya, non-covetousness or the lack of desire and brahmacharya, or abstinence with particular emphasis on sexual activity.  Niyama consists of five “observances”; shaucha, cleanliness of body and mind, santosha, satisfaction or acceptance with one’s state of existence, tapas, or austerities related to physical and mental observances which yield control of the mind, svadhyaya, or study of the Vedic scripture to cultivate knowledge of the Soul which drives human existence, and ishvarapranidhana, or surrender/worship of the ultimate source of creation, i.e. God (Ishvara in Hinduism).

What Swami Vivekananda laid out for the West however, aligned with the teachings of his guru Paramhamsa Ramakrishna, was that in order to gain a more accurate and effective perspective on spiritual life, and ultimate liberation from suffering and bondage achieved, four different aspects of Vedanta should be practiced and honed together as one cohesive system which should guide not only the inner life of the spiritual aspirant, but also the external life of the aspirant as well.  These four pillars of Yoga, as taught by Vivekananda, are Raja Yoga, as expounded by Patanjali, Jnana Yoga, or the pursuit of knowledge from which the fetters of bondage can be broken intellectually, Karma Yoga, or the practice of selfless action which provides the moral and ethical basis for right living for the spiritual aspirant, and Bhakti Yoga, which is love of the divine which propels aspirant along the path, a path which has been aptly described by some as “the razor’s edge” given how precarious and difficult it can be to follow correctly without stumbling along the way (which is why a guru, or guide, is an integral part of the Eastern philosophical teachings, no matter what philosophical school you adhere to).

To Vivekananda, these four perspectives or aspects of Vedanta were to be thought of and taught as a single, coherent philosophical system rather than as independent systems of belief, collectively providing the aspirant with a more complete and expansive guidebook on spiritual life, for the advancement of the human Soul, that could be gained by following one specific school at the neglect of the other three.  This, from Charlie’s point of view, was Vivekananda’s unique contribution to the modern era, he crystalized, synthesized and interpreted Vedanta for the West in a way that could be grasped both intellectually and physically by modern man, just as his teacher, Ramakrishna, had brought all the various religious practices together and illustrated them to be all different paths to the same goal, or different entrances to the same home as he liked to put it.  To Vivekananda, life and the universe was a gymnasium for the Soul, and his interpretation of Vedanta for the West, was the guidebook for the modern spiritual gymnast.

All religious systems, either from the East or the West, espoused morality and ethics as a core fundamental principle for the life of man.  Even the Greek philosophical schools had comprehensive system of ethics at their core.  The Western system taught that these morals and ethics should be followed for the attainment of heaven.  The Eastern theological and philosophical systems however, and arguably the teachings of Christ themselves if they could be parsed from the Book within which they sat, looked at morals and ethics not as something to be followed for attainment of some desire or need, but as a representation of a higher and finer form of truth.  In Aristotle’s terminology it was in virtue that the greatest good could be achieved, and that ultimate happiness could be achieved, and that this virtue was a learned skill and could be cultivated by habit, just as any art form could[2].

In its most pure form as Charlie understood the basic tenets of Eastern philosophy however, and the fundamental principles that underlay morality or ethics in general, was that there was an interconnectedness to all things, all beings animate or inanimate, and leading a moral and ethical life allowed the individual to better comprehend and understand this interconnectedness, or at least abide by it and be in harmony with it.  In Patanjali’s model, arguably the most systemic and well thought out of the systems of Yoga as they survive down to us in modern times which Vivekananda for no insignificant reason termed “Royal” Yoga, consistent with all religious systems in one way or another, sound morals and ethics were a core prerequisite on the path of ultimate liberation or illumination, or in Patanjali’s terminology samadhi, a goal which can be reached only by the practice of sound morals and ethics.

In contrast to the Abrahamic religions which rested their moral and ethical code on the revelation of God as handed down by their respective prophets, to which its followers must abide or they be subject to eternal damnation in Hell, which were wrapped up in mandates of specific modes of worship, Yoga as it emerges as an offshoot of the philosophy of the Vedas, aka Hindu philosophy, in the first few centuries CE as reflected by Patanjali’s Yoga sutras focus on the scientific method of the production of liberation, irrespective and independent of the object of meditation, or God, that one chooses to believe in.

 

All great religions speak of mankind’s special place in the universe of creation.  In the Eastern tradition specifically, as taught by Ramakrishna and in Tibetan Buddhism for example, the uniqueness of the human life, the jiva, as an instrument of the direct perception of the divine and the vehicle of liberation is emphasized.

In the Buddhist tradition, there is a wonderful story, a parable, which illustrates this.  There is a turtle in a great, vast ocean.  And in this vast ocean there is a small ring that floats on its surface somewhere, a ring with a circumference no bigger than a few feet across.  This ring bobs and floats in this vast sea carried by currents and storms and waves.  In this same ocean, there lives a sea turtle.  A turtle which like all turtles must pop his nose above the surface every few minutes in order to breathe and stay alive, even though he lives most of his life under the sea.  It is said that to be born in a human, and have the opportunity for liberation and illumination which is unique to our species, is said to be as lucky as fortunate and as improbable as that very same sea turtle, swimming in the vastness of the great ocean of the universe, popping its head up for air and happening to stick his nose through that small ring bobbing and floating on the surface.  As Ramakrishna so succinctly puts it, “He is born in vain, who having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realize God in this very life.”

What is it that is so special about the human form?  The Yoga tradition specifically calls out this form as a tool for illumination and realization, in a manner that is quite direct.  Raja Yoga describes how to perfect and hone this human form to prepare it for illumination, how to harness its energy.  This system describes how to perfect the strengthening and flexibility of the body (asanas), use the life force within the body (prana) and direct it upward through the spiritual channels that flow through the human form (chakras) running parallel to the spine (sushumna), for the purpose of moksha, or mukti, of the jiva, or liberation of the soul.

This is the serpent of Kundalini which is implied in the Hindu/Yoga tradition and is explicitly called out in the Tantric Yoga tradition as Shakti, the divine force, typically associated with the goddess Kali that underlies all creation.  This Shakti, or Kundalini, typically lies latent at the base of the spine of the individual centered around the lower three chakras which are associated with the basic, core needs of the human form – eating, sleeping and sexual desire.  The doctrine of Yoga as outlined by Patanjali, although it doesn’t speak of Kundalini directly, is effectively the art of honing and facilitating the upward movement of this energy, up through the system of chakras in the human form as outlined in Tantric systems of Yoga, for the purpose of liberation, or in Patanjali’s nomenclature for the purpose of experiencing samadhi.  Patanjali’s system starts with principles that govern what to avoid (yama) and what to observe or cultivate (niyama), providing for a foundation of ethics, morals and even the basic notion of worship itself as core principles for anyone wishing to practice yoga with the intent of liberating oneself from the world of name and form, the endless suffering that is called out so specifically in the Buddhist tradition, which shares a common philosophical parent with Yoga i.e. the Vedas.

This practice of Yoga is essentially the conscious practice of awakening the energy or life force within each and every one of us, a notion which is very much aligned with the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit.  Tantric Yoga specifically is designed to lift this Kundalini, latent serpent power, to the higher chakras located at the region of the heart, the throat, the forehead and ultimately through the chakra located at the top of the head, the thousand petalled lotus, which once opened yields the state of samadhi.   Once these chakras are opened, through the practice of Yoga and other Tantric rituals that leverage mandalas (visual symbols) and mantras (incantations and sound), the jiva experiences unrefined and unfiltered consciousness, higher and more subtle realms of reality where the distinction between the observer and the observed gives way to the direct perception of divine consciousness, called samadhi in the Yoga tradition or in referred to as satchitananda, Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute, in the Upanishads.

In this Yoga tradition, one which has been adopted by the West in the last hundred years or so as an alternative in many respects to the Abrahamic religions that have dominated Western thought for almost two thousand years, the human form is perceived as a bundle of energy, energy that is directly related to the cosmic energy from which it draws its source.  Is that not the true meaning behind the notion of mankind being created in God’s image which is a core tenet of Christianity, Islam and certainly Judaism from which this notion ultimately derives, i.e. in Genesis?  The Yoga tradition describes this in more concrete terms though, explaining why we as a species are so special, along with a fairly structured path toward the ultimate realization, the quintessential understanding, of this connection between the creator and the created.

From Charlie’s perspective however, this connection between the individual Soul and the universal Soul is essentially what all of the ancient cosmological systems were about, these same mythological stories of the creation of the universe and mankind’s place in it which are looked upon today as mere stories of the ignorant trying to explain that which these ancient peoples did not understand, notions that we now have a “better” grasp on in the age of science, were actually deep and profound mystical truths whose power had been lost throughout the ages as the metaphors had been watered down into stories that found their way into the literature of various religious systems – the Vedas of the Hindus, the Theogony of Hesiod, the traditions which yielded the cosmologies of the Ancient Egyptians which are found in the Book of Res-Menu, the cosmology inherent in the clearly sacred text of the Derveni papyrus, and of course in Genesis of the Old Testament which sits behind Christianity, Islam and Judaism to which some 4 billion people ascribe to today in some form or another.

The Western religious traditions had abandoned this notion of direct perception and realization of the divine, even though Jesus called it out specifically.  Why?  Because they were designed to unite an empire, unite a people, and in so doing could only ascribe to one path of worship and were forced to formulate, and legislate, their teachings such that the power of the divine was closely guarded by the select few.  But the Eastern traditions went down a different path, where not only was it believed the individual soul could be liberated from the world of ceaseless suffering, but that this liberation was the very purpose to existence, the ultimate goal of the soul as it were, the eudaimonia of Aristotle (typically translated as “happiness”) which is the ultimate purpose (telos) of the human being and thereby defines its existence to a great extent, much more so than the material causes which bring about the existence of the human form which we are so focused on in biology and western medicine today.

The Eastern traditions of Yoga and Buddhism not only lay out a system of ethics and morals within which life should be lived, but also lay out a purpose to life which is based upon the goal of, and fundamental belief in, liberation as the ultimate goal of life.  This is the ultimate freedom from suffering in the Buddhist tradition and the attainment of samadhi of Patanjali’s Yoga.  They all cajole us to go back to the source, to recognize our connection with supreme consciousness.  Not through any specific prophet or message, not espousing one set of beliefs, one God over any other, but the practice of Yoga, meditation and living in harmony with our surroundings as well as the people and society within which we live, in order that this illumination, this liberation, this “happiness” can be experienced.  And in this philosophy, the human form is said to be higher than even the forms of the Gods and Angels, for although in the world of the Gods there lie unlimited desires and powers, the prospect and chance of liberation does not exist.  This view of the mortal life being so special and unique can be found implicit in Greek mythology as well, where the realm of the gods and the realm of men mixed and coalesced for centuries prior to the advent of the historical record, giving rise to its mythology and the Age of Heroes for which arguably the Greeks are perhaps best known.

So it is up to the Jiva then, the individual soul, to determine what to do with this great energy that it has access to, this great opportunity for liberation.  Vivekananda, one of the great modern expounders on Vedanta and Yoga, talks about how all beings are moving toward the same goal whether they know it or not, either consciously or subconsciously.  That the natural flow and path of everything in existence is to get back to its source, whether this is directly perceived or not.  A reflection at the microcosmic level of the omnipresent inbreathing and outbreathing of Brahman, the process of evolution and devolution of all energy and matter from and back to its source, of which the human being represents its most latently powerful and beautiful form.


[1] It should be noted that Samkhya philosophy (Yoga) and Buddhism are related doctrines, both sharing a common parent philosophical system in Vedanta, hence their similarities.

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Knowledge and the Intellect: Extracting Truth from Scripture

Outside of his thesis coming together, with some clear indicators of cultural borrowing among Ancient Western civilizations with respect to the development of theology and philosophy, Charlie now had a much better context within which to view Niels’s letter which attacked the validity of mystical experiences within the context of religion and spirituality.  Charlie’s now had at least an historical narrative that could explain Niels’s position, and could at the very least establish historical precedence for the legitimacy of the mystical experience despite its lack of objectivity in the classic, western empirical sense.

For it seemed clear that somewhere along the way as monotheistic and more standard and canonized theological doctrines took root in antiquity, monotheism basically, the direct divine revelations that were the root of the power and authority of the priests and shamans of pre-civilized man which transformed into the heads of mystical/mystery sects of the ancient world, dissolved into more structured forms of worship and standard interpretations of religion that were enforced by policy and law, and then eventually by the sword as Christianity and Islam became the dominant religious forces in the region.

This shaman like authority which rested on these so-called mystical experiences and direct revelations and perceptions of the command of the god in question was first usurped by rulers and kings as civilization emerged and spread throughout the Mediterranean and Near East, and then consolidated and synthesized into standard religious doctrine that was integrated into an imperial strategy that was intended to not just serve the spiritual needs of its people but also to connect and establish the boundaries of various empires, binding together its people through religion as much as language and culture in a more broad sense.

This direct communication between the world of gods and men was clearly an artifact of pre-civilized man, a man and a society where the shaman/healer played a powerful and pivotal role in their lives and was the caretaker of belief systems that not only connected its people but also gave their lives meaning and purpose within a cosmic context, marked by belief in the immortality of the soul and the role of the gods in establishing and keeping order in the universe as well as in the lives of men.  As far as Charlie could gather, this connection between the world of gods and men which was the cornerstone of the ancient priest’s and shaman’s power, was the same power that was rested upon by the priests of the temples of ancient society, in Ancient Greece and Egypt clearly, and these same priests grew extraordinarily influential and powerful as civilization emerged and evolves and continued to play a strong role in shaping society and establishing the cosmic and universal order and mankind’s place in it.

And yet despite Western monotheism’s aversion to these so-called pagan and barbaric traditions which were characterized by complex rituals, incantations and spells even, sacrifices and undoubtedly induced higher states of consciousness by hallucinogenics or other intoxicants, it was these very same experiences, these “revelations” of the prophets of Abraham and his descendants, which these great religions rested on to legitimize their teachings and their religious practices to their followers.  Except the monotheistic faiths of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, now great religions but who in their infancy were just competing sects within a world of many competing gods and religious doctrines within which people were affiliated with either by birth or then later by choice, rested on the notion that it was only their prophet’s message that was “true”, that all other prophets and their associated messages and laws were not to be obeyed, and that in fact these other competing theological doctrines and practices led to eternal damnation and unending suffering – this last tenet being the main characteristic of these major religious forces which has been so manipulated by political and religious leaders over the centuries to force their beliefs on others and consolidate power.

With the advent of monotheism the direct perception of the divine had been relegated to the select few, just the prophets themselves, and the followers of these faiths, which represented some 4 billion people or so throughout the world in modern times, were confined to view God through their eyes.  But it wasn’t through the eyes of the prophets that the followers of these religions were guided in fact, if you actually took the time to study the source of these so called divinely revealed scriptures and the relationship that these words had to the lives and teachings of the prophets which they spoke of, what you found was that at best you were actually reading and interpreting these teachings, these messages, divinely revealed or not, through the eyes of subsequent interpreters and translators of the messages of the prophets as reflected by the by the authors of the scriptures who in some cases didn’t’ even have direct contact with the prophets themselves and in many cases had political motive as the driving force behind the creation of the scripture to begin with.

Irrespective of the lack of direct connection between these so called divinely inspired words and the teachings of these prophets, be they messengers of god or not, what struck Charlie was the self-serving nature of the intent and purpose of the scriptures and the establishment of these structured and highly organized religious systems, which went hand in hand with the subjugation and in many cases violent termination of the pagan rituals and theological belief systems which competed with them.

Charlie couldn’t help but ask the question, “How were these people chosen?”  What made them so special exactly?  If Moses could talk to God, and so could Muhammad and Jesus, why couldn’t he, or any one of us for that matter?  If there was a God, would he exhibit what seemed to be such an extreme form of favoritism?  If he was as benevolent, omniscient and powerful as all these doctrines said he was, the creator of the universe and all living things in it, the creator and harbinger of the world order and the protector of mankind, why wouldn’t he be more egalitarian in his approach to his “children”?

And furthermore didn’t Jesus teach “knock and it shall be opened”, “seek and ye shall find”?  How did that part of his message get lost or transformed into only through Jesus can you be saved?  Did Jesus ever say that?  Buddha, one of the great religious figures of all time most certainly didn’t teach anything that even resembled that doctrine, emphasizing that it wasn’t through any God that ultimate salvation was to be achieved but through the following of the Path that he laid out, one of virtue and self-restraint, the very same characteristics that could be found in almost all of the Greek philosophical traditions, which were the same metaphysical and theological doctrines that were leveraged and utilized by Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians to provide a more rational and metaphysical foundation for their scripture and doctrine that went beyond mere faith in the “supposed” words of a “supposed” prophet.

Was Buddha flat out wrong?  Was he just some religious quack who spent too much time in contemplation and meditation and lost his mind (interesting expression in fact).  Were all his followers going to burn in hell for eternity as fundamentalist Christians and Muslims would have us believe?  The more plausible explanation seemed to be, if you just stopped and thought about it for a bit, and studied how these teachings have survived down to us and how they have been manipulated down through the ages by men of power and greed, that just maybe the messages of these great prophets had been bastardized and disfigured, or at best misinterpreted in translation as they were handed down to us, and that maybe these were in fact great prophets but that their teachings had been lost, a major theme in Islam in fact except somehow the Muslim community seems to believe they are immune to the same features of religious decay as “messengers of God” have their teachings documented, transcribed, interpreted and in many cases manipulated for personal gain and power.

Charlie’s tennis buddy and amateur theologist Niels had argued, like many orthodox Western religious practitioners might, that mystical states, so called altered or higher states of consciousness which formed the basis of what could be loosely categorized as Eastern religious doctrine which taught the practice of meditation and personal perception of the divine as the means to salvation, or in Eastern terminology more aptly referred to as liberation or enlightenment, should not be considered a valid means to the realization of Truth because it was an entirely subjective experience and therefore had no empirical basis in reality.

As Charlie looked at Niels argument now however, Niels wasn’t only taking an orthodox and literal religious interpreters view, i.e. only the Word of God can be used as an instrument of Truth – or placed in a Christian theological context which was Niels’s background that it was only through the path that is laid out to us in the Bible that a soul could be “saved” – but knowingly or not he was also taking a pure empiricist view of reality and truth at the same time, resting his argument on the presumption of the reality of existence if and only if it can be empirically verified, verified by some other person or via some sort of experiment.

But implicit in this argument was that the Bible, the Word of God, was in fact the Truth and had an empirical basis of reality, an assumption that Charlie fundamentally disagreed with after taking a look at the origin of this Book and the context within which it was created and its standard canon was established.  How Niels, and other fundamentalist Western interpreters of theology for that matter, established the “reality” of their scripture, a fundamental notion of all of the Abrahamic religions and the scripture which its doctrines rested upon, and thereby held that the Word of Yahweh, God or Allah as laid out in their scripture was the only means of salvation or means to Truth, was a total mystery to Charlie and seemed lacking of any rational foundation, even after he had made considerable effort to try and ferret out the merits of such an argument.

What seemed painfully obvious however, was that these beliefs, belief in these scriptures as they were handed down to followers and students of these religions, belief which rested firmly on the life and teachings of their prophets who supposedly had direct communion with the one and only God, and thereby established the saving power of their respective teachings, was a matter of faith and had no basis in reason, just as the Eastern traditions taught that it was through the practice of meditation and contemplation of the divine which led to enlightenment.  From an empirical point of view, neither doctrine or belief system could be looked upon as more valid than the other, neither system of belief relied on faith any less than the other in its basic principles, and neither was certainly any less subjective than the other.

From Charlie’s standpoint however, embedded in the Eastern tradition of meditation practice was an implied form of empiricism, a feature that seemed to be absent from the Western religious doctrines.  For in meditation practice what you are ultimately doing is “testing” the existence of pure consciousness, refining and honing the methods of its attainment, experimenting with ritual and the molding of the mind into purer states of consciousness to see what lay beyond the veil, to see if there was perhaps something more, something that lay behind and beyond this materialistic world which Niels held to be the last and final word on Truth.

Perhaps this was a stretch of empiricism and scientific method as we know it today, methods which form the basis of all of the physical sciences which are so important and relevant to all of us in the modern world, but certainly the Eastern method exhibited scientific tendencies if you could call them such, the science of the mind, rather than blind faith in the transliterated, transcribed and translated words of a Book that was authored some two thousand years ago by some unknown set of authors and scribes.

As Charlie argued for the validity and utility of the practice of meditation as a valid means to illumination and enlightenment, he even found that he could make a case for reason itself being subjective.  For was it not Reason, or perhaps better termed rationalization, that Niels rested his argument for the ultimate saving power of scripture on?  Relying on thousands of years of doctrinal belief and faith in the Bible as interpreted by the Church as the cornerstone of his argument.  How could all these people, all these great men who were held in such high esteem in Western society, be wrong?

But the realm of thought was the creation and manifestation of the mind just as the subjective world of meditation was.  In fact the practice of meditation, as taught by any of the Eastern philosophic or religious schools, was in some sense a scientific like exploration of the mental world, a quest to determine if there existed a reality beyond the world of subjects and objects which was such a marked attribute of the mind, an evolutionary characteristic of our species in fact.

Because this distinction between the subject or perceiver of reality and that which was perceived, i.e. the materialistic and objective world, was in fact a requirement for all of the features of mankind which have supported our evolution over the last 100,000 years.  It is the marked characteristic of our species of apes, Homo sapiens, i.e. the genus of apes that can think, discern, understand and communicate.  Our evolution and distinction from the rest of the species on the planet, and ultimate rise to supremacy over all of the other species on the planet, rests squarely on this faculty, rests on our mental abilities, without which we would be wallowing in barbarism and eking out survival no doubt.

Our species begins its world domination first with the invention and creation of fire for warmth and protection, then followed by tool making which was a requirement to sustain life and eat.  These basic building blocks of mankind’s earliest societies are subsequently followed by the honing and refinement of the practices of hunting, and later agriculture and farming, which no doubt required some form of language and communication, which as more complex societies develop to support greater numbers of people living communally leads to the development of more complex systems of words and symbols to facilitate more complex communication and support a more complex social structure.  It is the development and evolution of language that underpins and supports this spread of more complex societies, to the advancement of civilized man in fact.

And as more complex societies develop, and there exists a need to communicate ideas not only over large distances and between and amongst generations of peoples, to encapsulate and communicate more abstract ideas, systems of writing are invented, perhaps the greatest invention in the history of mankind.  An invention which is an absolute requirement to the establishment of more complex social structures which are needed to facilitate the exchange of goods, services and ideas between and amongst not only individuals but also societies and civilizations as a whole, which establishes the basis for not only mankind’s absolute dominion over the entire planet but also allows us to evolve a collective intellect which can build upon itself from generation to generation, one of the keys if not the key to the advancement of mankind into the modern era of science.

These advent of complex societies, mankind’s first civilizations, supported by language and systems of writing which codify and transcribe the various languages spoke by various societies and civilizations, leads to the development of more structured religious systems to support the spread of human populations and societies throughout the world under a single beacon of faith.  Language and writing at the same time allow for the development of more complex, rational and logical physical and metaphysical descriptions of reality which allow us to more firmly establish our dominion over the earth, but also at the same time root our systems of thought into a framework that is based upon the various classification of materials along with their essential constituents (e.g. earth, air, water, fire).

It is this classification of reality into subjects and objects, language and constructs evident in Aristotle’s Categories and his definition and description of existence (being qua being) in his Metaphysics, we have established the intellectual framework of reality in the West which persists even to this day.  And over time what Charlie found was that in this intellectual framework the objective world is broken off and held to be distinct and separate from the spiritual or subjective world, i.e. the existence of objects or things that could be manipulated or acted upon by us as a species are established and held distinct from the subjects who act on these objects to produce various effects and outcomes.  This hard bifurcation of reality wasn’t necessarily emphasized or pronounced as monotheism takes root in the West up through the Middle Ages but was a marked feature of later philosophic development as the field of science breaks off of and sits in contrast to the world of the spirit, or religion, a byproduct of the Scientific Revolution as far as Charlie could gather (more on this later).

But in this monotheistic reality that is described in the teachings and scripture of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, all of which rested on the tenets of Greek philosophy to a great extent (in particular Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian), mankind looks upon itself as the ultimate rulers of this objective world, gods in fact in a very real sense.  A world which although from a monotheistic point of view is looked upon not only as the creation of some sort of supreme being who at the very least is all knowing and all powerful, but also looked upon as a world which mankind holds some special dominion over – as in each of these traditions there exists the belief that man (and woman) was created in God’s image and was given divine authority over the earth by God himself, fundamental tenets that are revealed to the Abrahamic prophets repeatedly throughout the ages.

And in this language that mankind created to describe the world around them, all subsequent mental constructs must be framed.  This is an effect and natural byproduct of the development of language.  It is its power and at the same time it’s limitation.  For this very same set of symbols, words, relationships and correlations which in toto are perhaps best described as beliefs systems which underlie our languageconstructs that evolved in parallel with and as a necessary prerequisite to the development of civilization and at the same time facilitated and underpinned not just our survival as a species but also the domination of the planet and control over the material world in a way that no other species in the history of our planet has done – must at the same time form the framework within which all human experience must pass through.

But what Aristotle was the first to do, work which has provided the foundations of Western thought to no small degree, was to develop a comprehensive theory of knowledge that was based upon the principles of comprehension, principles which he described in terms of causation.  That is to say we have knowledge of something, we understand it, if we can understand why it exists, or in other words if we understand the different factors which bring about something into existence.  And in order to develop this theory, he had to first establish a theory of existence to make sure that there was no ambiguity around what could be said to exist, which from Charlie’s standpoint is where the break of the world of matter and the world of spirit begins, all the way back to Aristotle.

He further groups these “things” into categories and subcategories, genus and species for all things that exist, “things” which were denoted by words in a given language (Greek in this case) and “things” which in Plato’s world were physical manifestations of abstract Forms or Ideas which represented the true essence of a “thing”.  And once he had established this categorization of objects of the physical world, and had a theory of existence which underpins it, he establishes a broad theory of knowledge which is based upon the comprehension of the qualities which describe a “thing”, being qua being, aspects of which are wrapped in a theory of causation which once fully understood yielded knowledge of a thing in the purest sense.  It is within Aristotle’s intellectual framework, his metaphysics, that the first truly rational framework of reality is described, from which the very existence of the world can be viewed in a comprehensive and fully descriptive way.

And in his theory of knowledge, which rests on these principles of the comprehension of the various types of causes which bring about a “thing’s” existence, he establishes the prerequisite of causation to existence itself.  For in his model of reality existence and causation go hand in hand.  And the most crucial of all the types of causation to Aristotle was the final cause – telos in Greek which can be translated as “end”, or “goal” – which represents in his model the ultimate purpose of this thing which provides the foundation for its existence and the understanding of which provides true knowledge, which to Aristotle is the highest, or “first” philosophy.  This notion of telos more than any other is latched on to by the monotheistic religions, particularly Islam, to provide a rational foundation to their faith based dogma as revealed in scripture, even though there is no underlying creative force or principle in Aristotle’s philosophy, simply knowledge and the tools and metaphysical framework that are to be employed to achieve such knowledge.

Which brings Charlie back to Niels’s argument that the only valid and real Truth is that which exists in and is seen through the “scripture”, which in the case of Niels’s argument specifically refers to Christian scripture, i.e. the Bible, but at the same time he makes the argument Islamic scripture, i.e. the Qur’an, as well.  This argument against the direct perception of the divine as against, or in contrast to, the Truth inherent in Bible not only didn’t seem to hold any water with Charlie but also seemed to be in direct contradiction to the message of the prophets which played such a significant role in the development of such scripture, Jesus in this case, whose actual teachings had been watered down and interpreted and transliterated by subsequent Christian theologians over the centuries until somehow, someway, the Bible itself was looked upon as the last Word on all matters and was to be interpreted literally in order that salvation could be achieved rather than the teachings of Jesus himself which are encapsulated, hidden almost, in the four Gospels.

The Truth must be based upon the literal word of the scriptures?  The interpretation by scholars of a work interpreted by a scholar of an original work whose source was unknown?  And yet somehow that was more logical, more reasonable, more scientific and empirical approach to the acquisition of knowledge or Truth than the practice of meditation which at its core was an attempt at direct union, communion, with the divine from which the physical world, and mankind, was created from?  Yes it was true that the eastern philosophical and mystical traditions encouraged you to use your mind to liberate yourself from the world of name and form, but it was the use of this same tool, the mind, that Niels appealed to when he ascribed to and argued for the primacy of scripture as the basis of Truth.

The practice of meditation assumes the existence of duality, the distinction of the subjective and objective world.  What is that you are meditating on?  Who is the meditator?  What is the nature of that which is meditated upon?  And at the same time the intent of the practice, the goal if you will, was to lose, or go beyond, the distinction between the subject of observation and the object of contemplation, to use a thorn to remove a thorn as Ramakrishna taught.  To travel beyond the world of name and form into the root of all things, to experience directly what the Vedantic philosophers called Satchitananda, or Existence Knowledge Bliss Absolute.  Naming the nameless.  Wrapping words around that which is the source of all words but was the ultimate goal that was taught by all the true prophets down through the ages, Jesus being no exception.  How Muhammad, or his followers for that matter, might argue that he could gain access to this direct divine revelation of Allah but that no one else could have access to this ultimate source of all things was a mystery to Charlie, and seemed to be the core problem with the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, or Christianity, for that matter.

But you have to start somewhere in a quest for answers, in a quest for Truth or in Aristotelian terms in the quest for knowledge or epistêmai.  And it’s from within this world of name and form from which any interpretation of biblical scripture, or reality or existence itself, that the journey must begin.  The world framed by language and writing within which the all of teachings of the Abrahamic prophets are handed down to us, in the Old Testament of the Jews, the New Testament/Bible of the Christians or even the Qur’an of the Muslims.  But that is just the beginning.  As the Greeks taught and as the Rishis of the ancient Indo-Aryans taught as well, it is with both Reason and Logic, the tools of the intellect of the individual mind, subjective reality in fact, which must be used to cut through this world of Maya, this world of name and form which is characterized by the endless pursuit of desire which is the root of all suffering according to the teachings of Buddha.  The Eastern philosophic tradition, rooted as it was in the practice of meditation and contemplation of the divine, an arguably subjective experience (at least at the beginning), rested on the supremacy of Reason and Logic, the supreme weapons of the Jnana Yogi, tools which Aristotle and Plato held to be paramount as well, upon whose metaphysics these same monotheistic belief systems looked to for a rational foundation.

But Reason and Logic are just the beginning, not the end.  You must start with an abstract thought, or phrase, or image.  And from this one pointed focus, this calming of the mental waves upon the shore of a single gentle, soothing thought or image or syllable(s), arises true awareness.  An awareness that we all come from the source, the telos of Aristotle, from which emanates not only consciousness itself, but all of the animate and inanimate objects in the universe that we are aware of and which defines and constitutes their very existence.

This is in fact the metaphysical model upon which the early Christian theologians based their belief, their faith, in the existence of God as described in the Old Testament and as taught by Jesus.  This is the Neo-Platonic One from which the universe emanates.  And it is from this source which we all drink from, this the same stream of the Infinite which is the ground of existence itself.  An awareness that that which you seek is all around you, and within you, and will still exist long after the name and form that is your human shell disappears from existence, leaving the question of the immortality of the soul aside.  This teaching was implied in all the scriptures and all the religious teachings of mankind, wrapped in the mystery of their respective mythical cosmologies and once they were stripped of their socio-political garments and their consistent and eternal Truth was properly understood from Charlie’s perspective.

So to Charlie it was clear that literal interpretation of scripture, removed and abstracted from any of the truths that could be derived from subjective reality, upon which the practice of meditation is founded, was a gross misinterpretation and misunderstanding of scripture itself.

But the end, and its means, was more complicated than that even though initially the validity of the subjective experience must be acknowledged, the same reality through which any interpretation of scripture must be based.  For the greatest teacher was Life itself was it not?  And Life could be seen and perceived, lived in fact, only by the subject who perceived the material world around him through his intellect, through his mind, the very same instrument that was used to read and interpret Scripture couched in language and symbols, and the very same instrument that was relied upon to ascertain knowledge itself in its purest form, the essential goal of meditation.

But it wasn’t just the “subjective” practice of meditation that could yield this elusive goal of enlightenment, or knowledge, or Truth.  One had to assimilate and incorporate the experience, the knowledge gained of the ultimate connection and synthesis of the seemingly separate and distinct subjective and objective world, of meditation into one’s entire life.  One could not deny one’s place in society, the history of its people, the challenges of survival and making a living in the modern world which was so devoid of any contact with nature or the animal kingdom which played such a prevalent role in ancient mythology and provided the symbols for the description of the world order in Judaism and Christianity and in turn Islam.  One had to bring this knowledge into practical use, what we would call today practical philosophy and what the ancient Greek philosophers, and even Muslim philosophers, falsafa, pointed to when they described the ideal society and the role of the philosopher within it.  This was the hard part, applying the teachings of the prophets to modern times, Charlie thought, and understanding that literal interpretation of any ancient scripture was a lost cause and could only lead an individual, or worse a society as a whole, astray was a starting point at least.

One of main teachings of Swami Vivekananda, arguably from his perspective one of the main goals of his life, was to assimilate all of the different branches of Yoga as they had developed throughout the ages into one sound, coherent and integrated philosophical system.  It wasn’t just the practice of meditation that brought you to enlightenment, practices which fell into the category of Raja Yoga, or the royal yoga as described by Patanjali, but also the pursuit of knowledge and discrimination using the powers of your mind, Jnana Yoga, combined with the intention and longing of the heart, Bhakti Yoga, and last but not least a selfless approach to work and action in general, Karma Yoga, that all formed the complete framework and system from within which the goal of enlightenment and liberation from suffering could be reached.

Back to that nagging question then: How was this altogether subjective approach to liberation or salvation, an approach rooted in contemplation and meditation which was essentially nothing more than the practice of exploring the boundaries and subtleties of the human mind and its connection with the universal Mind, a practice which lay at the heart of the Eastern philosophical traditions and from which Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious ultimately derives, to be altogether discounted as a basis for realization or Truth because of its entirely subjective and seemingly non-empirical nature?[1]

Charlie knew, and it certainly seemed to be hard to argue against, the idea that everything passed through this mental sieve, whether you were reading and trying to understand the word of the Bible or the Qur’an, when you were practicing meditation, when you were hitting a tennis ball, or even just taking a walk in the park and observing nature, all of these experiences were processed by and ultimately comprehended by the use of one’s mind or intellect.  By this definition, from this perspective, everything was subjective.  Hence Descartes’s cogito ergo sum.

The mystical experience of intuitive awareness and inner illumination transcends linear verbal thought.  In it duality is overcome, subject and object fuse: there are no longer perceiver, perceived, and perceiving as separate entities – all three fuse together to become a unity that belongs to the cosmos itself.[2]

Here we have the essence of the meditative experience.  And it’s this experience, this purely subjective experience no doubt but at the same time the goal of which is the transcendence of the distinction between a subject and the objective world ironically, that represents the heart and soul of the eastern mystical and theological systems.

The main difference between the Eastern and Western religious systems from Charlie’s point of view, was simply the difference in emphasis.  The eastern modes of thought emphasized the union, yoga, of the individual soul with the great universal soul.  The Atman, individual self, merging in the sea of the great Self, or Brahman, as described in the Vedas.  The Western tradition emphasized not personal illumination but salvation through a specific message from a specific prophet, to the exclusion of all other belief systems in fact.  This last tenet however was an altogether specifically Western religious idea, and the problem with the Western religious tradition which had such a marked influence on society in the world today and throughout mankind’s history in the last two thousand years was that these traditions were so marked by political bias and so baked in social constructs and law intended to unite a people and create a nation and an empire, that it was very difficult to parse through what the prophets actually taught versus what later interpreters and transcribers of scripture actually understood and in turn documented and wrote down.

In all the Western religious traditions there exists this notion of the fall of mankind, a notion which is looked upon by orthodox and fundamentalist religious interpreters, of which unfortunately Niels represented, as the basis of Creationism.  But the Fall, looked at in allegorical sense, represents the fall of the one into the many, the beginning of the suffering of mankind in the material world which starts when the Tree of Knowledge is eaten from and the recognition of duality, the notion of Self, begins its reign.  After the Fall a new era of mankind had begun where immortality was lost and mankind was thereupon forever forced to struggle to free themselves from the bondage of duality.

It is the goal of meditation to directly experience the unity of all things, to try and travel back to the Garden before the Fall.  The practice of meditation, Dhyana, is the heart of Yoga, ultimately leading to the experience of Samadhi, the last limb of Patanjali’s eight limbed Yoga philosophy, complete union with the divine source of all existence and the recognition of the immortal essence which exists within all of us.  This overcoming, transcendence, of the barriers between the individual and the absolute is the great mystic achievement.  In mystic states we become one with the abstraction of the abstract, and we become aware of our source, and our oneness with it.

This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed.  In Hinduism, in Neoplatoism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, in Whitmanism, we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think.[3]

Due to the sheer power of the experience, all the great mystics hesitate to describe it in words but at the same time they had to use words to communicate the path, the goal, the reality of it to their followers.  This is why all the prophets through the ages, and all great teachers in fact, use parable and analogy to describe and communicate ideas to their students.  Because the understanding, true comprehension of a teaching, requires the use of the intellect, the mind, to understand the words and symbols that are being used to convey a message.  To describe it and codify it, to bond it to a thought or string of thoughts as it were.

It was yet this realm of words and scripture that Niels would have Charlie believe was the only hallmark of true knowledge.  And yet Charlie knew, and anyone who would dare to follow the train of Reason to its final destination knew, as Aristotle was perhaps the first to do in its purest form, was that reason, logic, and words themselves were only the representations of the human mind created to describe the world around us, and our very existence and the means of perception of the world, which can only be viewed as completely and entirely subjective from start to finish, could be not be ignored or discounted when trying to acquire knowledge, or Truth itself.

Charlie was always fascinated by language.  It was his fascination with language that had formed the root and heart of his discussions with Niels really.  You were at these tournaments, there was a host country with its own native tongue, and then there were all these players from the far reaches of the globe, each with its own tongue and its own unique prism through which they saw the world around them.  There was no denying that and that different perspective on life that was to be found in all of the different players you met from all these different cultures, backgrounds and nations was something Charlie came to relish over the years, and he thought Niels did as well.

So how do you place words on that abstract idea, that core fundamental principle, from which all words come from?  You can’t do it.  Everyone has their own relationship to it, their own unique perspective on the world around them that is based upon their own upbringing and mental make-up, one’s genetic architecture you could say, and one that was subjective in the purest sense of the word, the very same construct which Niels was so quick to dismiss.

But you have to describe it in order to teach it, this was true of any discipline.  You have to frame it with words, Charlie thought, for the message to live and be passed on.  But the words were not the essence of the teaching, any teaching, they were simply the tool that had to be used to convey a thought, an idea or a principle from one mind to another.  But to confuse the teaching itself, the essence of a thing, with the words used to convey the message was a grave mistake from Charlie’s perspective.  And because of this distinction, between a teaching and the words used to describe it, words which invariably had specific meanings in specific times for specific people in specific cultures, it had to be expressed over and over again, for each culture and each nation, to show them the way and illustrate the truth that lay beyond everything that appeared so concrete and so real, particularly in our Western society of modern times which is so deeply steeped in objectivism and materialism.


[1] Jung describes a process called “individuation” as the means toward liberation or freedom from suffering.  In Jungian terms, which although borrows heavily from Eastern philosophy (as can be seen by his reliance on mandalas as the most effective tool for facilitating the process of individuation), the goal is perhaps better described the achievement of psychoanalytic balance and harmony or peace.  But it must be kept in mind that Jung’s theories and practical psychoanalytic work was based off of his work with deranged and very psychologically imbalanced patients so it wasn’t enlightenment that he was necessarily after but simple re-integration and harmony with society for his patients and his theories of mind were centered around this goal for the most part.  Individuation was an altogether psychoanalytic process, very much akin to meditation and the use of mandalas as means to this end is very much aligned with Eastern meditative practices which relies on very similar methodology, for both processes rely heavily on the use of symbols and both rested on the notion of the process of introspection – in Jung’s world via symbology and supplemented by psychoanalysis rather than through the practice of meditation which is emphasized in the Eastern philosophical traditions.

[2] James Hewitt, The Complete Yoga Book.

[3] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience.

The Game of Kings, Kipling, and Ritual: Strange Bedfellows

What struck Charlie as he dug deeper into the extensive philosophical and metaphysical systems that were created by Plato and even more so by Aristotle was an abandonment of the faith based mythological traditions of their predecessors in lieu of the power of the human mind, in its essential form of reason and logic.  The dawn of civilization in the Mediterranean was marked by trade and cultural exchange no doubt, this theme of cultural borrowing that Professor Lumina was so intrigued by.  But it was marked as well by the domestication of animals, the creation of language and writing which allowed for the creation of more abstract forms of thought and exchange, the creation of monumental structures such as the Pyramids of the Egyptians and the great temples of the Greeks, the invention of agriculture that provided the sustenance to support larger populations and the creation of urban centers which further facilitated exchange and places of learning, the invention of advanced forms of weaponry ship building to facilitate warfare and territorial expansion, and the building of roads and means of transportation that fueled the advance of civilization that so marked the populations of the Western world in the first millennium BCE.

All of these technical advancements must have led to mankind’s belief in the powers of their own mind, their own creative (and destructive) powers, the development of mathematics and building that fueled these societies all must have lent credence to the belief that it was man that was the great creator, and that the mind of man, reason itself, was the potent force behind it, and that in turn the gods that they had believed in for so long and the underlying myths that gave these gods life, as well as the rituals that were the means to supplicate these gods, must be mere fabrications of the mind, creations for a people who did not truly understand the nature of the world around them.  The seeds of Reason had been sown, and as they bore fruit they replaced the gardens of mythology with more sound analytical thinking and philosophical systems that simply made more “sense” than the mythology and ritualistic based belief systems that had supported mankind through their hunter-gatherer roots in the Stone Age and Paleolithic eras that preceded it.

These Greek philosophical systems questioned these age old belief systems, and in turn replaced them with more robust intellectual frameworks that were based upon the powers of the mind, on reason and logic, induction and deduction, on mathematics and astronomy.  And it was the questioning of faith that struck Charlie as the guiding force which drove these developments.  Were these age old stories, these myths told by the great poets of society true?  Should they believe these stories just because their ancestors had believed them for so many generations?  What in fact should the criteria for truth be?  What was knowledge?  What was the essence of existence itself and what were its constituents?

The Greeks were the first to start the ask these questions seriously, and it was the proliferation and beauty of their language which allowed them to construct the abstract systems of thought necessary to support these new systems of belief, alongside the development of their liberal and “democratic” society which permitted these systems of belief to flourish and permitted the questioning of the belief systems of their ancestors, and to question authority itself really which rested on the authority of these old gods and goddesses, and the fear of not supplicating to them in a manner that pleased them.

This question of faith, and the idea and relevance of the rituals that underpinned faith, reminded Charlie an awful lot of some of the main philosophical principles that he had learned as a tennis player, ironically enough things he’d learned to try and stimulate peak performance during match play, the “mental” aspect of the game that had gotten him into yoga in the first place.  The zone.

 

“What do you mean we’re going on tonight?”  Charlie spoke in broken Spanish.  He hadn’t learned Spanish in school so much, but he’d picked up a lot of it while living in Spain.  Traveling around in a caravan with two Spanish guys that don’t speak a word in English for eight weeks is the best way to pick up Spanish, let me assure you.  They learned around a dozen words in English and Charlie learned how to stay alive in Spain.  That skill required a few hundred words at least.  His accent was not bad though, even the locals gave him that.

“You’re the next match on court one.”  Marcelo, the tournament director, spoke to me without looking up from the draw.  Marcelo worked for the International Tennis Federation (ITF), but he was Spanish.  The ITF ran some of the smaller professional events, and certainly within a given region you saw some of the same tournament directors around.  Let’s just say that it was important to be nice to Marcelo.

Marcelo’s English was good however.  He was able to communicate with the other English speaking players that knew no Spanish, nor cared to learn.  He was a young man, probably in his late twenties.  His hair was short, military style.  He and Charlie had grown to know each other over the past few months.  Charlie had played a few Satellites[1] in Spain over the prior few months, and Marcelo ran pretty much the whole Spanish Satellite circuit.  This was business though, and it was getting late.  It was eight-thirty, and the moon was already glowing in the night sky.  Night match in Malaga, Spain in May.  One of 4 foreign players in a qualifying draw of 128.  Sweet, Chalrie had been waiting all day and now he was basically the last match on.

The match on court one was in the third set.  The matches on the other courts were coming to an end.  Charlie couldn’t believe that he was going to put me on at nine o’clock at night.  That was unheard of.  It was even against ITF rules.  But that was okay, because they didn’t play by the rules in Spain anyway.  Charlie had learned at least that much in his time in Spain.  And he certainly knew better than to start quoting the ITF rule book to the tournament director.  He wasn’t that stupid.

Charlie tried the soft approach.  “Don’t you think it’s getting a little late Marcelo?”  He tried not to sound sarcastic.  It was basically night time.  No one else was going on at that hour.  Send on the lone American way after anyone could possibly be interested in watching some tennis.

There were four foreigners in the draw out of a qualifying draw of some 250 players – an Aussie, a Brit, Niels the South African, and Charlie the New Yorker.

Although Niels was South African, he was really a British at heart, the British culture being instilled in him from his youth even though he grew up in Cape Town.  He was not affected by Apartheid per se, but the aura of Apartheid surrounded him culturally and sociologically and to this end he was a product of Apartheid.  Niels wasn’t white but he wasn’t black either.  He was a hybrid of sorts, and apparently South Africa had a classification of society, a social stratification as it were, based on the color/darkness of your skin, part of the system of apartheid really as far as Charlie could gather.  The blacker you were, the more far down the rung you were.  So Niels wasn’t at the bottom of the social rung, but he wasn’t at the top either.  And even though he had grown up somewhat privileged, spending most of his youth on the tennis court or travelling to tennis tournaments with his parents, he still ran up against discrimination every once and a while.  Just enough to show him that there was some basic injustice in the world, and many times there wasn’t a thing you could do about it.  But Niels was the product of a British colony, like the Aussies in that respect, and he had that regal adorable South African accent – an accent which only the well-traveled could place to South Africa, as opposed to Australia or Great Britain.

So the four foreigners had spent some good hours together over the prior two weeks, the tournament in Malaga being the third leg of the four week Satellite event.  And over those two weeks, their matches had started to develop an “us against them” sort of tone.  The Spanish satellites were Spanish.  That much was clear.  The ITF sponsored the tournaments, that’s where the money came from, but Charlie had begun to realize why there were so few foreigners, estranjeros as the Spanish referred to them, in these tournaments.

So Charlie sat by the tournament desk and waited.  There was no use arguing with Marcelo.  He was going to do whatever he wanted and there was nothing Charlie was going to be able to do about it.  Charlie could bark all night, but he was still going to be the next match on court one.  So Charlie just buckled himself in and tried to save his energy for the match.  A few minutes later his name was called.  He couldn’t remember the name of his opponent, but he’d never forget that match.  That was for sure.

They headed out on court and started warming up.  It was the legitimately night time.  It was dark and there was a cool, crisp air that came up from the sea.  The courts weren’t on the sea, but they were close.  Malaga was a tourist destination for those visiting Spain when the weather was good.  Many of the Spanish had summer homes there.  But it was too early in the season for it to be crowded just yet, hence the reason why the facility was available for two hundred young men to come together to fight for a hand full of ATP points.

The match started like any other – racquet toss, a few early holds of serve.  There weren’t too many people watching, just a few guys who were interested in the two competitors.  But Charlie’s friends were there – the Aussie, the Brit and the South African.  He noticed that.  And most of all Charlie noticed Niels, sitting right in the front row of the bleachers, just behind where Charlie’s chair was that he sat on during changeovers.  Those guys didn’t need to be there, it was late and some of them had matches to play the next day, but they were there.  And over the course of the match it was their presence, silent as they may have been at times, that carried Charlie through that match.

So Charlie’s “team” was there, perched in the bleachers with nothing else to do on a Sunday night in what you could definitely call the middle of nowhere.  And of course Charlie’s opponent’s friends.  He had a lot of them, Charlie thought.  It was his home country, so that seemed far enough at the outset.  The bleachers could fit a lot more people though, it was court one after all, the main court in the facility.  They hosted some bigger tournaments there throughout the year, so it was a legitimate venue.  But this was a smaller event.  And it was the qualifying.  So the bleachers were all but empty relative to how many people they could hold.  An odd sprinkling of people set to watch a last round qualifying match with two unseeded players, in Malaga, Spain.  I mean who really cared.  Really.

And then some typical competitive nonsense began to unfold.  The Spanish had a nasty habit of coaching during play.  One of the unique aspects of the game of tennis, at all levels, was that there was no coaching permitted, not during the match at all and not during change overs or even in between sets.  It was one of the aspects of tennis, part of its history, that made the game special and unique in the arena of sports.  It was mono y mono out there.  A mentally draining affair where you had no one to rely on but yourself, all the way through from beginning to end.  That was one of the reasons why the mental aspect of the game was so important, because if you weren’t there mentally, you were done.  There were no teammates to lean on, no break on the sidelines while someone lese picked up the slack.  No coach to give you guidance or pick up your spirits if things started going out of hand.  Just you.  And if you couldn’t handle yourself, if you couldn’t take the pressure, then the unfoldment of your mind, the breaking of your spirit, was out there in the open for everyone to see.

But in Charlie’s experience in Spain, players would constantly be taking direction from their coaches throughout the match.  Their coach would perch themselves behind the court and whisper/bark/gesture instructions to their players throughout the match.  Charlie was used to it.  But it was late.  It was a big match for him, the winner made it to the main draw, and there was the opportunity to win some ATP points if he could get through this match.  It was late, a big match, and Charlie was cranky.

 

There was a relationship between the mind and body that Charlie had become very aware of in his travels on the professional tennis circuit.  Tennis coaches and psychologists talked about the importance of eating right, of training properly, or hydrating yourself well before and during a match.  But the element of the complex relationship between mind and body had been underemphasized, at least in his training as a junior player and at the college level.  It was this ‘state of mind’ thing, a question of mental focus and concentration that was clearly integral to peak performance.  The game was mental as well as physical and when one aspect of this symbiotic relationship began to break down, performance suffered considerably, this much was clear to Charlie, hence his interest in yoga and its mental aspects that spoke specifically to the role of concentration and focus in meditation practice and mind/body balance.

It was clear for example, that when Charlie was relaxed, well rested, and felt physically strong (i.e. not injured) that was when he played his best.  And reproducing this state of mind, especially during the big points of the match, was the core essence of what you tried to achieve with your training.  But the emotional side of the game, the psychological side, the production of the state of mind which supported, and in fact was a requirement for, peak performance Charlie believed thought was not really expounded enough or taught enough by the teachers and coaches of the game.

At some level it came down to your support system.  Your friends, your family, your girlfriend.  All of these subtle elements of your life that gave you balance, or imbalance, emotionally were just as important as the physical aspect of your training.  These were prerequisites as it were to ensuring that your body, your mind, was ready from battle and could be pushed to its limits with limited amount of damage – damage both physically and mentally.  And in fact, focusing on this balance, and how important it was to success in any endeavor, was something Charlie didn’t really master until much later in his life.  When his days of gladiating were well behind him.  But certainly during this match, and in his professional playing days in general, he realized quite clearly how this emotional stability factor and this mental concentration factor were cornerstones to his success as an athlete.

But on this night, Charlie had his friends at least.  His temporal friends.  His “team” as it were.  His friends he had traveled with, slept with, ate with, trained with, and talked with over the last few weeks.  A bond much stronger than you would think could develop over a short time, but a strong bond nonetheless.  They wouldn’t be on those bleachers if it wasn’t.  That was clear.  And their presence there and their support gave him strength.

Over time, Charlie lost touch with the Aussie and the Brit, their names fading into the recesses of his memory.  But he remembered their faces.  And their games of course.  But Niels and Charlie always remained close, as indicated by their correspondence after he had left the game of gladiating behind, and their continued dialogue and echange of the ideas of the mind, and the spirit, and their exploration of the idea of what it was that was “real” and “true” and what systems of belief could be trusted and believed in and which could not.  This frank exchange of ideas and strong bond they had developed together in moments like these, when your physical and mental skills were tested to the limits, and when all you had was a few friends on the sidelines who watched while you battled on court for those ATP points.  And the match that unfolded late that evening in southern Spain, and Niels’s role in keeping Charlie present and focused, and protected and safe at some level, when all around him seemed to be falling into chaos, was perhaps one of the reasons they remained close many years after their traveling days were behind them.

 

At a certain point Charlie had had enough.  Again it was late and he was cranky and the match was close, and it had great significance for both players.  Finally he broke his silence, and his stoic presence changed when he finally blurted out, “Coaching is not permitted here gents.”  Charlie stated bluntly to his opponent, piecing together a few Spanish words that got his point across.  His opponent ignored him of course.

It was a tight first set now, the tension on court rising as the two played deeper into the first set.  His opponent was clearly receiving verbal cues from his coach when he went to the far side of the court, direct instruction that seemed to not only be words of instruction but also specific commands about where to hit the ball and when.  They might as well have been having a cup of tea together.  They didn’t make much of an attempt to hide the fact that they were having an open dialogue.  They were daring Charlie to do something about it and Charlie had had enough.

“You can’t coach!”  This time Charlie said it directly to his opponent’s coach that was sitting just behind the baseline on one side of the court.  He said it in English and he said it loudly enough where not only the kid’s coach could here but that everyone in the stands watching could hear.  The guy knew exactly what had been said to him.  Exactly.  A look of death is what Charlie got in return.  ‘This was going to be fun’, Charlie thought to himself.

So Charlie found himself on court against a local Spaniard, battling to get into the main draw of this event and get some of those ATP points he had been fighting for so long over in Europe the past year, and he has to play against not only his opponent but also his coach, which was a direct violation of not only the spirit of the game, but a very clear and direct breach of the rules.  And Charlie needed this match.  Badly.  He had worked very hard to get himself into this position.  He’d only reached the main draw of an ATP event one other time in his brief professional tennis career, and now he had a great opportunity.  This guy was beatable.  He had beaten two seeds in the qualifying tournament just as Charlie had.  And there they were, two unseeded competitors, one match away from the main draw of the event.  One match away from being in a position to win some of those valuable ATP points.  BIG.  Charlie needed this win.  Everything he had trained for, had prepared for, in his playing days as a junior, in his college career, and now in his journeys on the professional circuit, all led him up to this moment.  Charlie could see that as clearly as he could see the moon above him as it rose and shone brightly on the far side of the court, high up in the heavens.

Many sports fans have a hard time understanding why coaching is not allowed in tennis.  It seems strange.  Coaching is permitted in virtually every other sport – soccer, basketball, football, the list goes on.  But tennis, steeped in tradition, does not permit coaching on the professional ATP tour.  But this rule, this golden rule, speaks to the importance and respect that the tennis world, steeped in its centuries of tradition[2], has for the mental aspect of the game.  The unique aspect of the game that pits two mind/body systems against each other on a court drawn up of lines, played with yellow fuzzy balls and a racquet with strings in it.  For tennis, more so than any other sport, pit the minds of two opponents against each other, and forced the competitors to face their demons in a way like no other sport could.  You were out there alone.  You had to battle your own thoughts as much as the performance of the opponent.

And it was your own thoughts, your own fears and psychoses that could stand in between you and peak performance like nothing else your opponent could throw out at you.  The battle against your opponent combined with the battle of your own personal demons and faith and belief in yourself.  A battle that was the microcosm of the battle of life, the subject of the great epic poem the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna inspired Arjuna the great warrior on the eve of battle to fight, and to fulfill his duty as a warrior and to his people despite the moral dilemma he faced with the death that surely awaited him, for either his or his brothers and sisters that he was to fight against.  In the words of the great champion Andre Agassi, the Zen Master of tennis:

 

It’s no accident, I think, that #tennis uses the language of life. Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature. Even the structure of tennis, the way the pieces fit inside one another like Russian nesting dolls, mimics the structure of our days. Points become games become sets become tournaments, and it’s all so tightly connected that any point can become the turning point. It reminds me of the way seconds become minutes become hours, and any hour can be our finest. Or darkest. It’s our choice…[3]

 

 

And yet Charlie’s opponent, in arguably the biggest match of his professional tennis career up to that point, had a coach, a direct support system for his mind that gave him an unclear advantage, an unfair and unjust advantage.  He had a psychological safety net that was clearly in violation of the rules, rules that were steeped in tradition for centuries.  And tennis had another rule, one that was even more subtle and nuanced than the no coaching rule.  One that was rarely enforced and a rule that was nonetheless part of the fundamental principles of the game.  The rule was that the receiver must play at the pace of the server.  From the ITF rulebook, the rule states: ‘The server shall not serve until the receiver is ready. However, the receiver shall play to the reasonable pace of the server and shall be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready.’[4]

Kind of a soft rule, and yet part of the game nonetheless.  It was a rule that in modern times began to be enforced more and more given the amount of time that the pros were beginning to take in between points.  Every player had his own place.  The rhythm within which his peak performance tended to manifest most naturally.  Part of the game in turn, was to not only find your optimal rhythm, but also to break the rhythm of the opponent.  John McEnroe, one of the other legends of the game, was a master at this.  If John felt the rhythm, the momentum of the match was swaying in his opponent’s favor, if he felt the match getting out of hand, he would invariably cause a scene, question a line call, berate a spectator, do anything to disrupt the flow of the match and break his opponent’s rhythm.  John could take over the court and the arena like no other champion before, or after, him.  This was where his tantrums and outbursts came from.  His desperate need to control the events as they unfolded around him.  Nothing was more frustrating to Johnny Mac than a tennis match that was not under his control and no one was a master at dictating the rhythm, the pace, the flow of a match like Johnny Mac.  This was his great strength and source of greatness, and his great Achilles heel at the same time as he was berated and cajoled in the media for his tantrums late in his career.

To drive this sense of rhythm, to “tune in” so to speak to that rhythm that made you most comfortable and freed your mind to execute a serve as well as possible, every player had a number of bounces that they took before hitting a serve.  Charlie liked to think of it as every player having a “number”.  He categorized the player, assigned him a number, equivalent to the number of bounces they needed and wanted prior to hitting a serve.  And if the number changed, it was a reflection of a change in the state of mind of your opponent.  It could mean he was taking more time, trying to achieve greater concentration.  Or it could mean that he was rushing, taking less time and his mind was starting to break down and the match was beginning to take its toll on him mentally.

Charlie was a three bouncer, he liked a fairly quick pace.  He didn’t like to think too much out there.  To Charlie his mind could be his enemy, if he thought too much he tightened up and that affected his shot execution.  Agassi was the same way, he was a one or two bouncer, played at a very quick pace.  In the modern game, there was a tendency to take even more time before the serve, one of the reasons why the rules were changed to give players just 25 seconds between points rather than the 30 that had been part of the game so long, because players were abusing the time limits between points and disrupting the flow of the game, which in the end was hurting the game at large and its popularity because matches were taking longer and spectators were losing patience.

Nowadays there were ten bouncers out there, fifteen bouncers even.  Novak Djokovic, one of the great champions of modern times with 6 grand slams to his name[5], redefined the bouncer limits.  He was like a twelve or fifteen bouncer.  But his bouncer number increased with the importance of the point.  Break point down, 5-6 in the third set.  Twenty bounces.  Maybe twenty-two.  But it was a symptom of the mental pressure he was under, the more pressure the more bounces he took.  It was like a mental disorder.  And the more bounces he took before he served invariable the tighter his body was during his service motion and the less effective his serve was.  This was something he greatly improved upon later in his career, especially in his runs that led to his grand slam titles, and his he gained greater control of his mind, found a place of peace and tranquility prior to his serve that facilitated better execution of the serve itself, the most important shot of the game no doubt, the number of bounces he took before serving decreased.  He had gained control of his mind, and in so doing the manifestation of his psychosis that was the source of all those bounces and all that extra time to prepare for his serve, to “control” his nerves, had dissipated and improved and the effect on his overall game and performance was significant, and it showed up quite clearly in his results on court.

The number of bounces you used to drop into your ritual of beginning a point, that defined your rhythm.  It defined the pace with which the points within your service game were played.  On grass Charlie was a one bouncer.  But on clay and hard courts he was a three bouncer.  Three bounces for sure.  One, two, three, strike.  And he didn’t take too much time between points either.  He liked moving at a good pace.  He liked the rhythm of it.  He had picked it up from watching Agassi, or at least so he liked to believe.  Agassi played faster when he got older.  Like he just couldn’t wait to get on with it.  To force the events to unfold at a dizzying pace.  To lose yourself in the rhythm.  The ‘Zen Master’, the nickname that Barbara Streisand gave to Agassi, a nickname that stuck in no small measure due to its accuracy – and you can’t argue with Barbara Streisand.  There is a special place in hell reserved for those that disagree with Barbara Streisand, and they don’t serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

But what Charlie didn’t know then, but what he learned about more and more as he studied the ancient traditions of the east, was that this bouncing of the ball, the rhythm and peace that it created in your mind, was simply a practice of ritual, a ritual that was designed to relax the mind and the senses, and a ritual intended with a specific result, namely perfect execution of the shot at hand, just as the rituals of the ancients were designed to effect a specific result, the result dependent on the specific ritual being performed.

But Charlie still needed to find a way through this match, despite the fact that this Spaniard was clearly taking advantage of the fact that he was playing in his home country and bending and stretching the rules as much as possible in his favor, that Charlie was an estrangero and could barely speak the native tongue.

 

Matches in the qualifying rounds of these small pro tournaments never had dedicated umpires.  There were roaming umpires, so if you had a problem on court you could go grab one and he’d help the players work out the situation, and of course occasionally call foot-faults on you from three courts away, but no one was roaming at this hour.  They were the last match on court and everyone at the tournament was now waiting for them to finish so they could all go home for the night.  This had put a few more butts in the seats actually, because there was no one else to watch.  But no roaming umpires available.  Sorry.

Furthermore, cheating was pretty rampant at this level.  Players got away with anything they could basically, and there was a lot of bullying and “shortening of the court”, as the players used to call it.  And this Spaniard wasn’t doing Charlie any favors in that department either.  It was clear at this point Charlie needed an umpire, things were getting kind of out of hand and part of being a pro is recognizing when things were getting out of hand, when the flow or rhythm of the match was not in your favor, and doing something about it.  The tension was definitely rising on court, Charlie was getting crankier, and he wasn’t getting through to either his opponent or his opponent’s coach that coaching shouldn’t be going on.  And he needed this match, and he needed to level the playing field.

Enter Marcelo.  Charlie ran off court and got him.  Just what Marcelo wanted, to sit in the chair for some meaningless match at the end of the night between some cocky American and one of the local Spanish talent.  Once Charlie made this move the dynamics of the match definitely changed though, and that’s what Charlie had intended.  The stakes were now higher.  The tension now rose.  Clearly any sense of trust between Charlie and his opponent, a relationship that was tenuous at best in any match at the pro level, was completely eradicated.  Now that there was an umpire, calls were being questioned more often, not less.  The Spaniard dropped a little further from the baseline to make sure his feet didn’t cross the baseline prior to his serve, the dreaded foot-fault.  Charlie did the same.  You could feel the electricity in the air.

Charlie could sense the electricity in the air, it was palpable and everyone around them who was watching the match could feel it as well.  That old expression that you could cut the tension with a knife seemed appropriate.  Charlie didn’t know it them but a moment of what the Tibetan Buddhists referred to as bardo, or opportunity, had now arisen[6].  A moment where the flow of life, an opportunity for awakening (or in this case for winning or lose an important match) had arisen given all of the factors and elements that were now crescendoing as this match unfolded.  Charlie could sense it as any professional athlete could, and in the words of the great Robert Horry, the end of game three point NBA championship master who had hit so many big shots in his career, game ending shots in huge moments over and over again, “pressure can burst a pipe, or pressure can make a diamond”.  This was clearly one of those moments.

The good news was that the coaching stopped.  And this player that was so used to receiving instructions from behind the court from his coach started to flounder a little bit when this channel was cut off.  Charlie was hoping that was going to happen, and he began to see the web of the Spaniard start to unravel, to see the opening in his mind, the splinter which Charlie could exploit.

Breaking your opponent.  Breaking him physically and mentally.  Chipping away at his armor until he was wounded and on the ground kicking and screaming.  If you didn’t take joy in the process, relish in the physical and mental game of chess that tennis truly was, then you had no business competing, certainly not at this level.  Because it was only through love of the game, love of the unique mix of mental and physical opponents that challenged you during every match, that you could somehow make peace with it.  And deal with the dizzying heights that came from victory, along with the depths of despair that came from defeat.  That you could play the game to win, with all your energy, and yet at the same time accept the pain of a loss and wake up the morning after, lick your wounds, and prepare to put yourself out there one more time.  Against another opponent, in another city on another surface.  Accept the game in all its rawness, in all its glory which meant dealing quite directly with the world of opposites, the yin and yang of the east that played out on a court of lines and with yellow fuzzy balls, a court and game designed by monks ironically enough, played out in the courtyards in the 17th and 18th century in what now called “real tennis”, or “court tennis” and was the game upon which modern day tennis was developed.

Only in an individual sport like tennis, did losses present themselves so clearly.  If you didn’t win, you came in second in a game of two players.  There was no one else to blame but yourself.  You could whine and moan about the conditions, about the speed of the court, about the balls, about some injury or another.  But any tennis player, professional or otherwise, knows implicitly that the conditions are the same for both competitors, and it is the victor who is able to overcome the challenges of the conditions, the game of the opponent, and the psychological battle that rages within one’s mind as the match unfolds, that produces a winner on court and ultimately a champion.

This rawness of losing was very difficult to stomach sometimes, and you truly needed to love the game in order to pick yourself back up and compete again after a devastating loss, losses which invariably came, came to every player that played the game no matter what level.  Charlie loved the game, at least he thought he did.  Otherwise what the hell was he doing in the middle of nowhere playing a match against some unknown player in front of just a hand full of people, most of which could be categorized as strangers, chasing after some silly ATP points.

One of the other unique aspects of the game of tennis is the prevalence of losing.  Every competitor had to deal with it.  And it was this shared experience that Charlie thought brought tennis players together.  This shared rawness of putting yourself out there, and exposing yourself to the challenges of your mind, along with your opponent, that Charlie thought brought all players of the game together.  For in every tournament, there is only one player, just one, that doesn’t lose.  Every single other player in the draw loses.  They could lose early, in the qualifying rounds even, or get all the way to the final and lose there.  But everyone, except the winner who held up the tournament trophy at the end of the week, lost somewhere along the way.  In a draw of 128 players for example, the size of the main draw for grand slam events, every single player left the tournament a loser except for one, the guy (or girl) who held up the trophy at the end of the tournament .  That was the nature of the beast.  Even the top players lost half their matches over the course of the year, only the very very top, the top 10 or 20 in the world, ending up the season with winning records.  And it was the losses, much more so than the victories, and how the player dealt with and evolved after those losses, which defined the player.

Charlie had heard a story once, one of the many myths of the game that were part of the tradition, that after Boris Becker, another of the legends of the game, the winner of the Wimbledon title at the age of 17, the youngest ever, the winner of 6 grand slam singles titles as well, that after one of his losses in the finals of Wimbledon one year he was so distraught, do devastated, that he didn’t leave his apartment for a full week after the match.  Charlie didn’t know if it was a true story or not, but he certainly could relate and it certainly wouldn’t surprise him if it was true.

Was it love of the game, or a fascination of the journey of the of the depths of his being that pushed him to compete week after week, despite how difficult and unforgiving the challenge of rising in the rank and file of the tennis world was?  Was it some psychosis that drove him?  Some very basic elemental desire to prove himself that kept him coming back again and again to the game that seemed to be the source of such great emotional strain and suffering?  Was it the dizzying heights of victory that he was pursuing?  It was probably a bit of everything, Charlie mused.

But at that moment on court, Charlie was focused on trying to win.  Nothing else.  Every atom of his being was focused on trying to choke the life out of his opponent, while he had the chance, while he saw the chink in the armor, while he saw the opening, and while the opportunity was clearly present before him to put some points, some games, and some sets between him and his opponent.  For if Charlie had learned nothing in his tenure as a professional tennis player, going all the way back to his days competing as a junior at 10 and 11 years old, was that opportunities present themselves in a match typically only once.  And when they do, you must pounce on them.  For if you don’t capitalize on these opportunities, you will invariably be plaqued by regret and remorse for not having done so.  It was these moments of bardo, moments of opportunity, that needed to be seized upon.  And step one was you needed to be aware they were present, and step two was you needed to capitalize.  Sometimes, if you didn’t capitalize on those moments and you ended up losing the match, the mental anguish of the loss could pursue you for years after, even decades.  Just ask Johnny Mac about his loss to Lendl in the finals of the French Open, a title he never won, where he squandered a two sets to love lead and up a break in the third set.  That won left a mark that’s for sure.  It was this fear of regret of a potential loss when he saw this window of opportunity, this opening, so clearly, that perhaps more than anything else drove Charlie on that night.  What pushed him to squeeze victory out of a very precarious situation, when the stars arguably were not lined up in his favor.

The good news for Charlie is that once he brought Marcelo on court, despite Marcelo’s Spanish roots, the pace of play on Charlie’s serve started to level out, and the Spaniard no longer had access to his coach.  His coach, in fact, was asked to move from beyond the baseline into the bleacher seats along with the rest of the spectators.  And the Spaniard was so accustomed to receiving direct instruction from his coach, sometimes even during points while they were being played, that when Charlie cut off that source of instruction from him, the poor bastard started to crumble.  His rhythm was broken, a rift in his mental state had been created.  Charlie had found the key that unlocked the room where the source of the Spaniard’s competitive spirit dwelt.  And Charlie charged right into that room, and made himself right at home, disrupting the Spaniard’s rhythm, getting into his head quite literally, and in turn disrupting his ability to play at his best, disrupting his peak performance.  It was almost painful to watch actually, even as his opponent.  To see such great play and competitive spirit turn into an error strewn display of frustration and anger.  Ok maybe it wasn’t so painful to watch.

Charlie started to gain momentum, the Spaniard started to make errors and get frustrated, and just like that Charlie saw a window to pulling out the match.  Up a set and a break.  Here we go.  The end is near.  And as the end of the match started to unfold on court, Charlie noticed that the bleachers had a few more bodies in them.  He wasn’t sure where they came from, but he was pretty sure that he had found himself right in the middle of a pretty good spectacle.  One with a villain, and a fallen hero.  Charlie was on the wrong side of this tale though.  At least on the wrong side from the spectator’s perspective.  From a won and loss perspective of course, Charlie very much liked the side he was on, the villain part he could deal with.

 

Charlie couldn’t help thinking though, even in the heat of battle, that this game was truly a test of the human spirit, a test of mental as well as physical strength and a test of skill and training, all wrapped up into one contest.  And the end result, the winner and loser, so illustrative of life itself on many levels, just as Agassi so elegantly put it, was the perfect example of the cold, heartless reality of a competitive game of tennis and in turn life.  Of one competitor doing everything in his power to break his opponent to achieve victory.  And there was a beauty in that, no question.  A beauty in the stark reality of it, in the test of the limits of the man’s competitive spirit.  But there was a harshness in it too.  A sense of brutal reality that one might find on the plains of the Serengeti where a lion stalks and hunts down the weakest of the gazelle so that she can feed her cubs.  Where there must be death in order to support life.  The whole circle of life thing as cliché as it was.

And Charlie had been here before, many times before.  And this training kicked in as he tried to navigate through points, and in turn games to create an opening for a victory.  And in the chaos of the moment, as Charlie started to create some separation between him and the Spaniard in that second set, he heard the echoes of that Kipling poem, in all its beauty and grace and power.

 

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son![7]

 

The words passed through his mind like shadows as the match started to unfold before him, in his favor this time around thankfully.  He knew the poem not from school, but because the lines ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’ were inscribed on the wall of the player’s entrance to Center Court at Wimbledon.  The holiest of holy places in the game of tennis.  The place that made, and destroyed champions.  Where all of the legends of the game had passed through and made their mark.  For if you didn’t make your mark at Wimbledon, well then, you hadn’t really made an indelible mark on the game, or so the legend went.

That was it wasn’t it?  All captured in those two lines by Kipling.  Tennis wasn’t a game of kings, it was a game of gladiators, exploring the depths of the human soul and spirit in a fantastic array of athletic talent, endurance, strength, mental toughness and insight, and agility, all played out on this court with white lines and boxes on it, with a net in the middle, and this yellow fuzzy ball that you struck with a round shaped racquet with strings in it.  Seriously?  Yes, seriously.  A silly little exercise of chasing a yellow fuzzy ball around the court against an opponent within which all of the mysteries of life could be revealed.

And in order to achieve peak performance, to hit what athletes called “the Zone” when you really needed it, you needed an understanding of the art of ritual and how it was the railing that you held onto when all felt lost for you on court, even if you didn’t call it ritual it was those small ticks, those small little habits and exercises you did between points, that either prepared you for the next point properly, or failed to do.  For when the desperation for winning, or in many cases simply the core drive to avoid the prospect of failure, started to overcome you and take over your mind and lock you up physically, it was these small little rituals, these little patterns and behaviors that could calm your mind, bring you peace and set yourself in the moment, that could make all the difference.  And it was the same pressure, the same tension, that same inner struggle that all tennis players felt and had to overcome, no matter what the level, and that was in some respect the beauty of the game, the mental struggle to achieve peak performance, to achieve victory, to avoid the anguish of defeat, that everyone who played the game could relate to.

And of course at Wimbledon, that was where they held the key.  The source of the game’s strength and longevity.  The reason why champions were made there.  The Kipling quote wasn’t out there on Center Court for everyone to see, it wasn’t outside the locker room for all the press to view and snap photos of.  It was inside the walkway to center court, underlining and underscoring the momentous event that was about to unfold before you.  And to remind you.  To tell you quite clearly as you walked on court, that the game was bigger than you, that the game was about the inner struggle for perfection yes, and about winning no doubt, but it was about the definition of your character, the illustration of the depth of your soul for all the world to see.  ‘Treat those two imposters just the same’.  Nothing harder to learn, nothing more difficult to comprehend, nothing more difficult to achieve, no question about that in Charlie’s mind even after all these years of playing and competing, and yet when you find it, when you truly understand the depth of meaning that Kipling so eloquently described, then you had won already then hadn’t you?  Won at the game of life in fact.

 

Once tennis fans figured out that there was an interesting match unfolding, one with a little dispute that added some spice and story line, people started to assemble.  Charlie saw that so many times.  Where the people came from he didn’t know.  But they assembled when the tension rose, when a battle unfolded and two great competitors challenged each other.

So the bleachers started to fill up a bit.  Charlie could clearly tell by the applause between points that he had not ingratiated himself to the “fans” so much.  He was playing the role of the villain well.  He didn’t care really.  He just wanted that damned W.  The bodies in the bleachers were blatantly rooting for the Spaniard to come back.  Even Charlie’s camp, the other three foreigners in the draw, the English speakers, was very quiet.  They didn’t want to say a word.  They knew when to keep their mouths shut.  But they were there.  They stayed.  They had Charlie’s back.  And that was important.  Charlie wouldn’t forget that.  Especially Niels of course, with whom he had developed a bond that would last well beyond his playing days.

But Charlie was up a set and a break.  He was getting close to closing out the match.  He could smell the end, taste it.  He was so close.  His opponent was starting to get even more frustrated, making more errors.  The Spaniard was crumbling now.  Charlie could sense it like a lion senses weakness in a pack of antelope.  Charlie’s fist pumping didn’t stop though, he was getting a little carried away in the moment as well.  And the closer Charlie got to match ball in his favor, the more vigorous and buoyant were his fist pumping and shouts of encouragement which he levied upon himself.  “Vamos!” was one of his favorite epithets and that one escaped his lips in fervor many times as he attempted to close out that match, and its Spanish origins no doubt even further irritated the Spanish spectators that were hoping and praying that this Spaniard would somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat and beat this arrogant American and send him home packing with his tail between his legs.

None of this behavior ingratiated Charlie to his mostly Spanish audience.  They wanted their local boy to win, no question about that.  But they also clearly perceived Charlie’s behavior to be unsportsmanlike and ungentlemanly.  Charlie needed to fire himself up to make sure he closed out the match without letting his nerves get to him, but from the spectators view it was Charlie stepping on the throat of an opponent who was wounded and gasping for air.  But that’s what Charlie need to do, squeeze every ounce of fight out of his opponent until he had no more fight left in him.  Charlie was looking to finish the gladiatorial spectacle off with murderous precision and cold heartedness, and he didn’t give a damned what the Spanish thought of him.

As Charlie mind bounced from that epic poem, back onto the court, he started to capitalize on the hole in the Spaniard’s defenses that he had opened up.  He saw the path to the W.  He saw his opponent on the ropes.  He got more aggressive.  He knew how to close out a match.  That was something innate in him.  Something you couldn’t teach, his coaches had told him.  And he saw it now before him, and he pounced on the Spaniard and broke through his defenses.  Getting more and more fired up along the way.  Lots of fist pumping.  A few more, “Vamos!” thrown in for good measure and assert his on court presence and dominance over the flailing Spaniard.

And all the while he heard Niels’s small quiet voice, almost hidden within the backdrop of the Spanish din, that cheered him on.  That gave him words of encouragement and support, when he needed it most.  Niels’s cheering was not the loud, boisterous kind that was coming from the Spanish, it was the subtle more grave kind, one that understood the mountain that Charlie was climbing, and inserting just the right words of encouragement, or the clapping and cheering that was not accompanied by words, that kept Charlie going through that night.

 

Tennis is a dance.  It’s a dance of adversaries, where the ballroom is the court and the dancers are not intertwined physically necessarily but most certainly connected.  When Charlie played tennis, particularly when he was plugged in, in the zone, you were integrally connected to you opponent.  Connected in a way that you could anticipate his movements.  You could see where he was going to hit his next shot.

You had angles, Johnny Mac was so good at knowing the angles, the percentages.  And the percentages told you about probabilities really, what was the probability that your opponent would hit the ball crosscourt?  Down the line?  What was the score?  Was it a time for him to play conservatively or be aggressive because he had a few points to play with.  The tighter you kept the score, the bigger and more important that the points were, the easier it was to anticipate where their next ball would go.

Speed and quickness in turn, is measured not be how fast you actually move from point A to point B, but also how well you anticipate the next shot.  For any athlete knows, as clearly and plainly as the sun that shines before them, that there is no substitute for that first step.  The proverbial jump you get on a ball.

So speed is deceiving somewhat. Because it depends on your court position, your ability to anticipate, as well as your actually speed – how fast your legs can actually move the body/mind system that must be in position for the next shot in order to strike it, move it back to your opponent, with just the right spin, just the right velocity, such that your opponent’s next shot was as difficult as you could possibly make it for him.

And you always had to keep in mind the angles and percentages that you had to cope with when you struck the ball.  And the better position you were in, the more solid your physical foundation when you struck the ball, the more opportunities and better percentages you had to work with.  That was why movement was so important, so key.  On all shots except the serve of course.

The serve was a different beast altogether.  It was the only shot where you weren’t moving, in flight.  You had basically all the time you needed (actually 25 seconds between points) and yet it was the most technically complicated of all of the shots.  You controlled where the ball was, where you tossed it, how far out in front it was.  And yet on the serve, you had all the physical forces of your body at work – the hips, the shoulders, the legs and calves, the elbow and wrist – and the all had to work in perfect fluidity and synchronicity.  To strike that yellow fuzzy ball some ten to twelve feet above the ground behind the baseline, some 99 feet across a net that was three feet above the ground at its center, and place the ball with the perfect spin and at the perfect angle within a few square inches of your desired location, preferably just where your opponent was least expecting it or at the very least just where your opponent least wanted to see it. The best servers had the most fluid and smooth motions, but their fluidity hid the complexity of the stroke, they made it look easy but it was far from easy and it was an art form that took years and years to master, and some never did.  But the ones that did were the ones that achieved greatness, the likes of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer to name probably the best servers of all time, and the ones of course with the most fluid and beautiful motions, works of art really and art forms that took decades to perfect.

And of course it was the serve, and how a player serves under pressure, that in almost every tight match has the most impact on the actual outcome.  For tennis is a mental game, no doubt.  It is a battle of wills and minds, an attempt by the adversaries that have the net and court between them to break their opponent down, to find their weakness and exploit it as much as possible.  An exploitation that leads to frustration, that leads to pressing and lack of fluidity, which in turn leads to more pressing and in the end defeat.

You physically needed the game, the tools, to compete at the highest level though, there was no question about this.  You needed weapons.  Big weapons.  You needed a bomb of a serve.  A bomb that could be slipped and placed into every corner and every crevasse in the service box on the other side of the court.  You needed precision, as well as power.  And you needed to be able to vary speed and spin, ball velocity.  And you needed to be able to hold your serve.  Not hold in the sense as win your service games, but hold the ball on your serve such that you opponent could not see where the ball was going to be targeted until after the ball left your racquet.  The hold.  This holding, this deception, was such a subtle nuance of the game, especially on the serve, that it was overlooked even by the best of commentators and spectators.

If you look at the serves of Pete Sampras or Roger Federer, look at their ball toss, the quickness with which they snap their hips, shoulders and arm into the shot, and at the same time recognize that it’s not until their opponent sees their racquet face strike the ball, that they know where that serve is headed.  Sampras was perhaps the best at this, you couldn’t tell where he his serve was going until after it left his racquet and in many cases this was just too late.  And this was their secret, their great gift.  And this subtlety depended upon the balance and fluidity of the entire service motion, and the softness of their hands to push and stretch that ball into different corners of that service box with as similar a motion every time they serve as possible.  The same could be said of baseball pitchers really, how to make a curve look like a fastball or a changeup, such that the hitter couldn’t tell which one it was until after the ball was released from the pitchers hand and it was too late to change the momentum of your swing.

 

And there it was.  The match before him.  On his own racquet as they say.  Charlie dropped into his pre-service ritual.  Walking back steadily to the fence to pick up all the balls.  Spinning the balls in his hand to pick out the ones he wanted to use.  Catching his breath.  Breathing deeply through his nose to try and relax his nerves, his mind, his body.

Match ball.  The slider out wide on the ad side of the court.  That’s where Charlie wanted to go.  That was his bread and butter, his set up shot.  His “go to” play when he needed a point on that side of the court.  His opponent knew it was coming.  He had ridden that play all night long.  The courts were slick.  The balls were bald, all the hair torn off them as the two gladiators had beat them into submission over the course of three grueling hours of battle.  That made the balls slide even more.  So slider it was.  Charlie was committed.

Charlie rolled the balls around in his hands once more prior to serve.  The last part of his pre-serve ritual.  He selected the one he wanted to use for the first serve slider he could see so clearly in his mind’s eye.  It was the one with the least amount of ‘fuzziness’, the baldest one that would slide off the court the most.  The ball that would catapult him into the main draw and put him one step closer to that ATP point that he had been chasing all around the world.

Match ball.  Charlie served out wide, a slider, and came in behind it.  Charlie was a lefty and that slider out wide on the ad side if hit well could set up either a baseline winner to the open court, or sometimes he’d come in behind it and cut off the volley into the open court.  He came in behind this one.  The serve was hit well.  He got a flailing reply, a nice easy floating ball up the line.  Charlie cut off the volley and carved it into the open court.  One last fist pump and he was off to the net to shake hands with his opponent.  It was done.  Victory.

Then the fun started.  The Spanish seemed to coagulate and congregate outside the court.  As Charlie stepped off the court after shaking his opponent’s hands, and Marcelo’s hand.  He walked right into a fray of people and noise.  Charlie was still really wired, he had just pulled the victory out a few seconds prior and was totally tuned into the match.  He now had to make that transition back to no-tennis playing reality.  That usually took a few hours.   After a big match like this that could sometimes take up to half a day in fact.

And he stepped into the chaos.  Charlie was shocked to see the energy and anger of the Spanish as he stepped off the court.  There must have been 4 or 5 of them still left watching the end of the match.  It was late, well past midnight, before they finished.

And Charlie for sure didn’t see the arms and fists that came at him from behind.  He just felt them on his back.  And just as Charlie turned to face his new adversary, in a setting that he was altogether unaccustomed for (Charlie had been in just one fight in his life, with a pal from school when he was in 4th or 5th grade.  Charlie had won that battle as it turns out but it was quite tame, two private school kids in blazers wrestling around for a few minutes basically, not altogether good preparation for a cock fight in Malaga Spain), he saw Niels fly past his peripheral vision, and straight on top of the chap that had his hands and fists buried in Charlie’s back and kidneys.  Niels to the rescue, how fitting actually.

By the time it was over and Charlie and Niels were back in their hotel room ready to shut it down for the night, Charlie looked over at Niels and said, “nice work tonight my friend.  Not quite sure what I would have done without you, on or off court”.

“You probably would have gotten your ass kicked.  On both fronts my man”.  Charlie could see the wry smile on his face as he said this even though Charlie was on the other side of the room getting ready for bed.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”  Charlie responded.  Damn straight he was right.  A kinship that would last a life time, sown in the seeds of battle.  Rare indeed.


[1] The “minors” of the tennis tour, akin the triple A baseball league before the pros.  The Satellite events were four week events, typically under USD 20,000 in prize money.  Each of the four week long events would be hosted at different tennis facilities in the same general region, all in Southern Spain for example.  The best 32 players (in some cases just 16) qualified for the final week of the satellite, where all the ATP points were handed out depending upon performance.  The next level of the professional tennis tour were Challenger events which were in the neighborhood of USD 50,000, had smaller draws and were typically closed, i.e. there was no open qualifying rounds and you had to have a high enough ranking – 300 in the world or so – to qualify.  Satellites have since been replaced with what is called Futures, one week events as opposed to the four week Satellite tours.

[2] Tennis, or ‘Lawn Tennis’, had its root in Court Tennis, or Real Tennis, whose origins date back to the 17th century.  For a nice piece on the history of Court Tennis, see http://www.uscourttennis.org/index.php?id=48.

[3] Andre Agassi Facebook post, Dec 19th, 2013

[4] From Rules of Tennis, official rules of the International Tennis Federation (ITF), of which the United

States Tennis Association (USTA) is a member.

[5] As of Jan 2014 Djokovic had won four Australian Open titles, one Wimbledon title and one US Open.

[6] “The Tibetan word Bardo means literally “intermediate state” – also translated as “transitional state” or “in-between state” or “liminal state”. In Sanskrit the concept has the name antarabhāva. It is a concept which arose soon after the Buddha’s passing, with a number of earlier Buddhist groups accepting the existence of such an intermediate state, while other schools rejected it.  Used loosely, the term “bardo” refers to the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one’s next birth, when one’s consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one’s previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth. The term bardo can also be used metaphorically to describe times when our usual way of life becomes suspended, as, for example, during a period of illness or during a meditation retreat. Such times can prove fruitful for spiritual progress because external constraints diminish. However, they can also present challenges because our less skillful impulses may come to the foreground, just as in the sidpa bardo.”  Quoted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bardo

[7] Rudyard Kipling, “If….”

Meditation and the Mind: The Sharpest Tool in the Shed

This review of the Cosmology of the ancients, their similarities and differences, their relationship to power and authority, were all intellectually interesting and of course relevant for that thesis that Charlie had to produce, but not so relevant for Charlie himself as he tried to navigate this increasingly interrelated and complex world, a world that had for the most part abandoned the dogmas of organized religion in favor for materialism and science and one where he had to make sense of the world without having the luxury of simply adherence to the doctrine or practices of a local church or synagogue.

But his curiosity had led him to the Eastern philosophical, rather theo-philosophical, systems of belief, religious systems that were founded on the notion of personal illumination, individual spiritual practices, and the existence of energy systems within the human form that were directly connected to, or at the very least very much related to, their cosmic counterparts.  For in the Cosmology of the ancient peoples lay an inherent belief in the connection between the individual human form and cosmic consciousness and the ground of all being, albeit in metaphorical form, a connection that was lost as advanced society evolved and the Cosmology of the ancients was subsumed for the science of modern man.

 

One of the many metaphors for the bliss of the union of the divine, the goal of the practice of meditation in all its forms, is that of the sky and the earth underneath it.  Wherever we go on this wonderful planet Earth, we always have the Sky as our backdrop.  We cannot escape it, although most of the time we are wholly unaware of its presence and its connection to our daily lives and its relationship to the ground of our existence.  It is just so with meditation.  The experience of deep meditation is the sky that provides the backdrop for the events of life.  And it’s this backdrop, this omnipresent source, from which the manifestations of life in all its forms springs forth, in all their various gross and subtle forms; from the crassness and cruel reality of the physical word where life and death coexist in natural interdependence, the doctrines of survival of the fittest and natural selection that Darwin “discovered” and explored, to the more subtle and finer world of the mind and spirit which provided for the ground of our being and the being of all life form on the planet.  All have the same beginning and end and all evolve and devolve into the same omnipresent and omniscient consciousness, this was the ultimate message of the ancient cosmologies that were so core to the belief systems of the ancient civilizations from which modern society emerged.

One need only to sit calmly for a few moments and attempt to completely perceive the nature of this underlying reality, the birthright of every single one of us that walk this great Earth, in order to get a glimpse of that which cannot be known and that which cannot be understood and yet can be experienced and perceived at the same time.  It is from this seed or practice, of the direct perception or Reality that the meditational experience can root itself and upon which sat the metaphysical systems which the Eastern traditions had kept alive all these centuries.

At first, when one sits in meditation practice one will find that thoughts toss themselves turbulently about the sea of the Mind.  But just as the nature of “I” is unclear as one’s meditation practice begins to take hold, the nature of Thought itself becomes unclear as well.  What are thoughts?  Are they real?  Does what we think define who we are?  What of the creative nature of thought?  From whence are thoughts born?  What is the true effect of thoughts upon the reality within which we perceived the world around us?  Are these thoughts, these impressions, simply a backdrop from which we experience the world around us as it happens or do they frame and construct the reality which surrounds us?  Do they create our reality or are they a function of reality?  A classic chicken and egg problem Charlie thought.

 

Charlie remembered his first meditation experience quite clearly.  Odd he thought that there were some events in life that were timeless to some extent, memories that did not fade no matter how much time passed.  And his first experience of focusing the mind on the eternal, looking inward, was something he always carried with him and something he always found spectacular and at the same time strange and odd – and yet real, in the sense that it had carried with him despite the passage of a great deal of time and life experiences.

He had started reading about some of the more esoteric mystical traditions of the East.  He had been on the road for many months in Europe, embarking on his arguably failed professional tennis career, and found a lot of free time to read and study during his travels.  All of his work and scholarship at during his undergraduate studies, his preparation and ultimate authorship of that darned thesis, had given him an appetite for learning, and an appetite and enjoyment of study and writing.  He hadn’t considered these skills very much when he was grinding through his studies, or even when he was preparing his thesis, but once he left academia, he found that what he had learned as an undergrad chasing that elusive concept of cultural borrowing that Professor Lumina had planted in his mind, the true gift that he has given he later found, was the beauty of being an academic, a student and an author, an gift that last a lifetime or so it seemed.

He was playing in France, and in France they were known for their hospitality.  He was traveling with his old friend Niels, and two Aussie buddies he had picked up and met along the way.  And he was winning some, in a way that he hadn’t really done before.  He won some key matches, picked up some travel money, had gotten a decent ranking and a reputation that came along with it, and was starting to gain some confidence in his abilities on court.  And at the same time, his studies began to deviate from straight ancient history, theology, and philosophy, to mysticism; the practice and art of the experience of bliss that were so painstakingly described and outlined in the various systems of Yoga from the East, India in particular.

Charlie didn’t know it yet but it was Raja Yoga, or in its more esoteric form Kundalini Yoga, that he was reading about at that time.  He didn’t yet understand Yoga’s relationship to the Vedic tradition, or the premise that all the yogas – Bhakti, Jnana, Raja and Karma Yoga – must be practiced together in concert in order for the spirit to progress along its path as smoothly as possible.  This synthesis was perhaps best described by the Yogic adept Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), the chief disciple of the great 19th century Indian sage Ramakrishna, an enlightened mystic of the Yogic tradition by any measure who played a significant role in the introduction of the Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the western world in the beginning of the twentieth century.

But Charlie landed on the tradition of Kundalini Yoga first, primarily as a mental practice in his quest for greater focus and concentration on court.  For what he found, and what all great athletes find eventually, was that concentrated mental focus, particularly at key moments in a match or contest, many times made the difference between a win or a loss.  And it was wins or losses that made an athlete at the end of the day, as much as some might believe in the old adage, “it’s not whether you won or lost but how you played the game” that counted.  Charlie found it humorous that Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis champions of all time was said to have once joked that whoever said that must have lost.  That always made Charlie smile.

And Kundalini, or Raja, Yoga more so than all the other Yogic disciplines, spoke of the mystical and supernatural doors into the nature of reality and existence that lay latent in the human form, the ultimate power that lay dormant within all of us the serpent of Kundalini, that lay dormant at the base of the spine, and could be awakened through the disciplined practice of meditation.[1]  And he was fascinated again, fascinated by this system of energy which it described, a system of energy that he already intuitively knew and manipulated, energy he could feel and tap into as he sprinted about on the tennis court chasing after that yellow fuzzy ball in the dance with his opponent chasing after points, games, sets and matches as a professional tennis player.  He was fascinated again, just as he was as a small child fascinated with the myths of Achilles, Hercules and Odysseus in his reading of the Greek myths and the gods and goddesses whose trials and tribulations they described.

He had sat for the first time on a small tree trunk outside one of the tennis facilities he was playing at in France at the time.  He had picked up a book on Raja Yoga, on the power latent within us that coursed through our chakras, or wheels of energy that ran up and down the base of the spine, and had starting reading the sections about Kundalini, the serpent power that lay latent within us, and how to awaken it.

The concept of the chakra system originates in ancient Hindu texts, featured prominently in in the Tantric and Yogic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, most notably the systems of Patanjali whose eight limbed practice of yoga had been adopted so widely in the West.  Its name derives from the Sanskrit word for “wheel” or “turning” and refers to wheel-like vortices which are believed to exist in the more subtle form of the human spirit.  The chakras are said to be “force centers” or whorls of energy permeating, from a point on the physical body, the layers of the subtle bodies in an ever-increasing fan-shaped formation, rotating vortices of subtle matter, they are considered the focal points for the reception and transmission of energies, energies which once understood could be manipulated through yogic practices like asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises) and concentration (dhayana) and ultimately meditation where the object of concentration and the concentrator himself merged into one.

And so, one day after a training session, he wandered into the woods behind the courts and simply sat, and rested his mind and focused his attention on this latent serpent power, this power that he was already attune to given his training as a professional athlete.  His posture was not bad, he was sitting upright with his back straight, and just as soon as he closed his eyes, he felt a rush of energy well up within him and quite suddenly and the world’s bottom seemed, in fact did, drop out from underneath him and the expansiveness of space and time opened up before his mind like the revealing of rainbow in the sky, a rainbow that was sitting before him all the time but yet had not noticed it until he had sat and opened his mind to receive its perception in all its glory.  Space expanded, time itself ceased to be, and he could sense that the source from which he came was not, and yet was at the same time, his physical body or the mental sheathe that covered it and awareness, his consciousness, expanded well beyond what he had ever thought imaginable.

But what Charlie had yet to learn, yet to fully absorb, was that the mind was an instrument.  This is what they taught in the Eastern theo-philosophical traditions.  The Eastern mystics had studied the mind, in a seemingly scientific and empirical way, for thousands of years and they had come up with various language and terms, as well as specific approaches and techniques, to harness this mind and use it to reveal the true nature of Reality, a Reality which at its core was unknowable and yet at the same time directly perceivable.  In fact they had created and formulated a language, an architecture of principles along with a means for its revelation, with which to not only describe the nature of mind, but also the process by which its true underlying and all-encompassing nature is revealed.

Sanskrit was the language that was used to describe this science of the mind, and its roots dated far back into ancient times, stemming from the Indo-Aryan nomadic peoples that roamed the Near and Far East well before the great civilizations of Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt rose in the Mediterranean and Near East in the third millennium BCE and subsequent centuries.

Vedic Sanskrit was the language of the Rig-Veda, the oldest text of the Indo-Aryan people whose authorship was dated by most scholars to as early as 1500 BCE and according to some scholars and academics reflected oral and other ritualistic traditions that dated back much earlier, perhaps even as far back as the fourth or fifth millennium BCE based upon the civilizations and practices which it described and the corresponding archeological evidence from the region of modern day India and Pakistan which is where the ancient Indo-Aryan peoples are believed to have originated from.[2]

Let’s look to the science of the mind then, this great instrument that the seekers of old, the rishis, or great seers, described in the Vedas, and see how they described it and how it was best put to use to illuminate the mysteries of life and reality – what language they use and how they describe the utility of this mind, this tool that frames the world around us and has promoted and elevated the human species beyond the confines of the base physical world in the last few millennia since the dawn of the Neolithic Revolution and in no small measure has driven the evolution of civilized mankind and its dominion over the earth.

 

The Sanskrit term for mind is manas.  It stems from the root ‘man’, which is a Sanskrit verb meaning “to think” or “mind”.  So it is the subjective, nominative concept of this term which is used to describe this most powerful instrument of ours.  Once could describe it from a Vedic point of view as ‘that which thinks’ or ‘that which minds’.  One can also think of this faculty, this gift that separates us from the lower forms of life, as our own computer, or interface, with the world of name and form around us.  The touch points, or sources of input for this system are the five senses – touching, tasting, hearing, seeing and smelling.  And each of these sources of input work together to experience the world around us.  This act of experiencing includes a subject and an object that together, along with the our faculties of sense perception, to create an experience, or event, all stemming from and processed by this manas, or mind, from which we experience the world around us.

And manas’s job then (and let there be no doubt that manas is supposed to work for the jiva, or individual soul, and not the other way around) is to process this event and experience for the individual, categorize it alongside other events and experiences that share similar characteristics, and in turn take learnings and concepts from the experiences to further along the mind/body system to which that manifestation of manas is associated, the individual Jiva or Soul.  From a Darwinian sense the development of manas can be looked at as a tool that has helped us survive, helped us to domesticate animals and develop agriculture which in turn helped the advent of great cities, civilizations and then in turn empires.  But from the Vedic point of view, the ultimate utility of this instrument was not survival, but liberation from this great wheel of life and death and the ultimate perception, realization, or our oneness with the ground of reality of essence of the universe.

Manas then, after thousands of years of evolution, is the highly developed and sophisticated instrument that could be considered the artificial intelligence portion of this mind/body system, continuing with our software and technology analogy from above.  It is constantly adapting to the world around it, processing and storing hundreds of pieces of information a minute, dozens at least every second, and is able to rapidly apply this information – these memories and lessons learned you could say – to another unfolding event or experience that immediately follows the previous one, and yet at the same time is wholly integrated with the experience before it.  It is the greatest gift of man, and yet so little of its power and essence is understood or studied by mankind ironically, at least outside the field of psychology or mysticism, both fields that take a back seat to the materialistic and capitalistic societies that dominate the Western world today.

According to the tradition and philosophy of Vedanta, which arguably is quite simply the science of the mind and intellect and its relationship with Ultimate Reality, manas is bound to the senses and yields vijnana (practical knowledge of simply information) rather than jnana (wisdom or true knowledge) or vidya (understanding).  This implies of course, that there is something higher than manas, something more subtle and powerful, something that guides manas – the charioteer of the mind if you will borrowing the analogy and metaphor from that great Hindu epic The Mahabharata where Krishna teaches Arjuna about karma, the nature of Reality and mankind’s place in it, and reveals ultimate wisdom to him on the eve of battle[3].

Manas presents its information to its maker, its ruler or its puppeteer, and it is this master principle that processes the information (vijnana) and determines or chooses how to react to all of the information being presented to it and what to do with it if you will.  This principle, this determinative faculty that sits above and behind manas, is called buddhi, or intellect[4].

Manas is the perceiving faculty, our interface with the world that we deem ‘real’, reality being defined in this context as that which is perceived by our senses[5].  Manas is no doubt a great and powerful instrument then, but it is an instrument or tool only, to be subjugated and controlled for higher means, according to Vedic tradition and philosophy, just as the horses are controlled by the charioteer.  Manas furthermore is considered to be just one aspect of what we classically consider to be our mind in the classic western sense of the term, or the mental aspect of individual consciousness.  The entire internal organ of the mind, according to the Vedic tradition, consists of manas, buddhi (intellect), chitta (memory) and ahankara (ego) and collectively is referred to as antahkarana, or “inner cause”.

In the Vedic tradition, or the practice of meditation as outlined in the various systems of Yoga, the individual is instructed to recognize the difference between buddhi and manas, and in turn to identify the presence of ego, or ahankara, in order to more closely identify with and be aware of the role of one’s buddhi in decision making and action in general.  What we would classically consider mind, or psyche in the classic Western academic sense, is looked at in the philosophical system of Vedanta as all of these four components – buddhi, chitta, ahankara and manas – working together to drive behavior and action.  Recognizing the distinctions and roles of these four aspects of our minds from the Vedic standpoint, allows the individual to understand the differentiate between the perceptive faculty of the mind and its corresponding discriminatory aspect, buddhi, allowing for separation and greater understanding of the workings of this great and powerful tool of mind or manas, that can be a destructive or degenerative force as well as a tool or instrument for liberation depending upon how the it is used.

In other words, manas perceives the outside world and processes and stores this information via the chitta aspect of mind.  Chitta though, is not merely a storage mechanism; it also has an emotional aspect to it, which is manifested via what are referred to as samskaras, or deep seated mental impressions.  Samskaras, according to Vedic tradition, represent the most powerful and emotional charged memories and impressions of mind that most influence and guide our behaviors and choices as we go through life in the present.  (Samskara comes from the Sanskrit sam, which means ‘complete’ or ‘joined together’ and kara which means ‘action’, ‘cause’, or ‘doing’.  Samskaras, along with referring to these deep seated psychology impressions that are associated with the Jiva and are a result of previous actions and the Jiva’s attachment to said actions, also sometimes refers to the personal sacraments that mark the major milestones of the life of the Hindu, from the moment of conception to the final scattering of his funeral ashes.  It is the former philosophical meaning of the term samskaras that are pertinent in the role of the mind that we explore here.)

To make matters more difficult, manas and chitta are colored and clouded by ahankara, or ego, along with samskaras, and it is only through purposeful awareness of one’s buddhi, or intellect, that the individual can see the world around them for what it truly is, and forcibly guide one’s behaviors to desired results rather than one’s samskaras and ego guide our behaviors unconsciously, at times yielded undesirable results.  According to the Vedic tradition, it becomes a question of who is driving the chariot, the charioteer or the horses, to boil down to its essence one of the essential messages of the Bhagavad Gita.

All of our thoughts, words, feelings, actions, behaviors and life experiences create impressions on our mind, or our subconscious as referred to by modern psychology.  These impressions are called samskaras in the philosophical systems of Yoga and VedantaSamskaras are the grooves in the mental pathways of our mind, they can be thought of the current that drives us forward mentally which in turn drives our actions on the physical plane and at a very fundamental level create the reality of the physical world around us in the sense that it frames our perception of it and how we react to it.  Samskaras can be positive or negative, and are typically driven by emotional attachments to what we desire, or in turn the avoidance of things or experiences which we associate with pain or suffering- that which propels us toward something we want or forces us away from that which we want to avoid.

Understanding how all of these aspects of mind work together, and the role of one’s buddhi in processing all of the information and determining how to act or react to a given situation or stimuli, allows for a much more profound and deeper understanding of the role of mind in our daily lives, and in turn how the mind can lead to bondage or suffering.  This understanding, and tapping into the potency of buddhi, and at the very least the recognition of its existence, can also help us better understand why we think the things we think, why we have strong emotional attachments to some thoughts or ideas, and how these samskaras can be tamed to better guide and influence our behavior to desired results, rather than our behaviors and thoughts driving certain behaviors unconsciously.  Knowing the charioteer exists gives us a much better chance of controlling the direction and speed of the chariot.

Charlie liked to refer to the machination of the mind as reflections and speculations.  If you watched the mind for some time, stood away from it just a bit, he found that you could categorize the thought waves into reflections, the mulling over and processing of past events, and speculations, the creative part of the mind that is typically called the imagination that creates scenarios and situations that have yet to occur although they have some basis in reality, or the mental impressions of past experiences.

In effect, you could consider the workings of manas, that great and powerful tool, as a constant processing of information that is taken in by the senses, our interactions with others, and the application of this understanding to present or future events.  This is what the mind does, this is its purpose.  It is constantly organizing, generalizing and processing information from the world around us, comparing and contrasting it to past experiences and known modes of understanding, and then in turn filing away such information and storing it in the massive library, called chitta by the philosophical systems of Yoga and Vedanta.

Buddhi in turn, can be looked at as the charioteer, or the CEO, of this complex mental and psychological system.  He sits atop all of this massive store of information, and if his presence is perceived and recognized properly, he can be the master construct that processes and stores all of this information that comes in from the five senses continually all around us, and can act on it as they deem fit, using the power of discrimination and wisdom.  Better contact, comprehension and awareness of this guiding principle of the mind yields greater control over what would be called behaviors in modern psychology, and in turn a better chance of being able to achieve our desires and goals by framing our actions in a way that lead to desired ends rather than being bounced around in the world around us by the constant chasing of senses and desires.

As Charlie started practicing meditation more, he found that upon closing his eyes and focusing his mind he was immediately confronted by the waves of his thoughts.  The deeper and stronger the thought or desire, the more it plagued or was stirred up, by his practice of meditation – his desire to be a successful competitive tennis player, to compete on the big stages of the world, his desire for love and companionship, concern about his family, etc.  All of these thoughts stirred within him, and surged through his mind one after the other, with seemingly no end.  In the practice of meditation then, Charlie was challenged with the concept of mind and the nature of thought itself, what it represented and how it defined who he was.

Upon his meditation on the nature of thought, the turning of the instrument of the mind upon itself as it were, his now new quest to understand the thinking apparatus within man, he concluded what the Vedic and Yogic traditions had taught for thousands of years, that thoughts had different potencies, the waves came in different strengths and shapes through the backdrop of the mind, the strongest and most powerful of these thoughts stemming from his deepest and most lasting desires or disappointments, i.e. samskaras.

Most of us have thousands of thoughts during the course of the day.  They reigned over one’s life really.  They provided the framework from which Charlie acted and reacted in his daily life.  They framed people’s perception of him as well as one invariably must express themselves through words, and words and language and sound stem from thought.  It is these thoughts themselves that provide the framework for the events of our life really.

But most people didn’t recognize this.  They allowed themselves to be ruled by their thoughts, driven unconsciously by their samskaras, and were not aware of this subtle truth that drove their actions and behaviors, that their deepest and most relevant past impressions were in turn what more than anything else guided their present reality, and how the world around them shaped and adapted to them rather than the other way around.  But when you stopped for a few moments, let yourself enter into the world of the mind to discover its nature, it was then when you begin to realize the great influence that thoughts have on defining who you are and how you perceive the world around you, and in turn how the world around you and your relationships in particular were shaped by your thoughts, particularly your reaction to them.  Of course understanding their potency and liberating yourself from their bondage were two totally different things, the difference between a novice tennis player and a world champion, or master craftsman, so to speak.

 

Samskaras.  Charlie had yet to be exposed to that term when he first sat in meditation on that stump long ago in rural France, but that was the realm he was beginning to explore.  Moving from the raw physical world he sought so hard to master on the tennis court, into the more subtle world of the mind to try and find the secret of peak performance.  A journey which led into the nature of mind itself.  His inner journey had started.

Once Charlie had embarked into the realm of thought, he began to try and gain control of these thoughts, control by focus, that was the practice.  To sift his way through all the thoughts that he had, and consciously try to choose and focus his thoughts, the onepointedness of the Buddhist and Yogic traditions.  Some thoughts he chose to cultivate, and others, he chose to ignore or push away.  The thoughts still emerged to and fro upon the surface of his mind, but by choosing which thoughts to cultivate, Charlie began to reflect on their power, and contemplate their source.  Charlie had yet to realize the true import of visualization, the source from which mandalas and other visual representations of the divine, stemmed in the Eastern traditions[6].

And after the passage of some time, Charlie found, through the calming practice of meditation and the observing of thoughts as they passed through the undercurrent of Mind, one might find that these thoughts would slow, and begin to merge and coalesce into more pointed or singular thoughts or concepts.  One would climb the ladder of abstraction until it reached some its highest rungs.  And as it moved higher, the physical plane of existence becomes more and more distant, and the meditator began to merge into the world of thought, and into the source of all thoughts.  This world around the Jiva, the experiences and their impressions that they leave upon the mind of the individual, reflects the potency of this concept Maya[7], or illusion, that they speak of in the Vedic tradition, as looked at from the non-relative standpoint and from higher levels of perception.

Charlie knew for example, that one of the thoughts that plagued him on his second serve, was the double fault.  The dreaded double fault.  The gift wrapping of a point for your opponent.  And the potency of this little thought that had the potential to chip away at the foundation of his serve.  When he tossed that ball, sometimes that thought would creep into his mind, and his arm and back would seize up and tighten, and invariably, even if the serve went in, it had nothing on it.  A veritable meatball in the eyes of his opponent.  Despite all the energy he put into it, the ball had little velocity, and his accuracy was shoddy at best when this thought crept into his mind before his serve.  The thought, the fear of the double fault, had a direct physical manifestation in his physical body as he went through the physical motion of his serve.

So how to quell this thought?  How to drive it from your mind so that you can relax and be as fluid as possible in the complex motion of the serve that was so critical to setting the stage of the point and giving yourself the best possible chance to win that point?  For it is this fluidity, this relaxed state of mind, from which the velocity and accuracy on your serve came.  Charlie understood this and yet at the same time that dreaded thought would sometimes creep into his mind before he served, despite everything he might do to set it aside.

In all sport, the more complicated a physical motion, the more relaxed and peaceful your mind must be to accomplish it, to find the perfection in it.  To channel the energy in your body in the most complete and effective way to send that yellow fuzzy ball into the exact spot you were aiming, with the exact velocity, and the exact spin.  You couldn’t break it down, you couldn’t think about all the complex physical attributes and movements that needed to take place in order to achieve it, you needed to simply feel it.  An in order to feel it, your mind had to be empty, or said in another way, full in its perception and manifestation of the fluid and clean motion that yielded the serve that you were looking to execute on.

The serve, ironically enough given that it was the only shot in tennis where you could set the time table upon which it was struck, was where this state of mind, this emptiness, was needed most.  The serve was only stroke that had no external variables associated with it outside of your own physical presence and posture and the ball which you held in your hand.  It was just you, and the ball, standing up there next to the baseline.  A simple toss with one hand, a coiling of the hips and shoulders, a bit of a knee bend to get your legs into the motion, and then “thwap!, that ball came off the strings and was sent barreling over the net (hopefully), over to the opponent’s service box.  The more relaxed you were in the motion, the more it came from true feel, the more effective the shot was and most certainly the more velocity you had on the ball.  This was true of the serve more so than any other shot.

So how do you find this place where you can be at your most effective?  Your most relaxed, and yet your most aware state at the same time?  It was through ritual and through mantra.  That was what Jim Loehr, the eminent sports psychologist, was getting at really[8].  Through the rituals that surrounded the beginning and ending of the points, and through the repetition of a mantra or word that represented positive and powerful energy, you lost yourself in the rhythm of the game, your mind focused on the ritual, and the body was allowed to perform at its best – naturally.

This experience on the tennis court then, gave Charlie a deep sense of appreciation for the power of thought, the importance of ritual, and most certainly the power of mantra.  He saw clearly the power of thought, and its defining quality in its manifestation in both the positive and negative sense.  Once he understood this, and began to apply these principles of ritual and mantra into his game, and his meditation practice, his thoughts began to gain strength and focus, and take on a more positive, affirming form.  Through the constant practice of meditation, Charlie began to refine his thoughts until they reached a purer state and more abstract state, and more importantly Charlie began to be aware of their potency.

For there is a great difference between a pure, crystallized thought, and a lazy thought that exists alongside of dozens of other thoughts.  At the beginning then, Charlie found that meditation was simply the practice of refining his thoughts, of letting them pass through the substrata of your mind until the sea of thoughts was quelled, and the thoughts that stemmed up from the depths of the mind became more abstract, and more subtle, and the space between each individual thought began to expand and grow.  This was the settling of the mind in action, the quelling of the sea of mind until its rough waves began to relax and calm.

This is where Charlie found the Buddhist’s traditions to be very helpful.  Buddhism originated from Hinduism, just as Christianity had its roots in Judaism.  Buddha was a Hindu just as Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew.  And yet Buddhism had taken the esoteric teachings of the Vedas and crafted a handbook of sorts for the struggling soul, a much more simplified handbook than the Vedic philosophical and metaphysical tradition, at least from Charlie’s perspective.  The Four Noble Truths.  What a beautiful gift to humanity it was.  A guidebook to the realm of the spirit really, and a framework for living that would last over a thousand years.

The four noble truths of Gautama, spoken to his disciples just after his enlightenment under the buddhi tree, can be summarized as 1) the nature of this world is suffering, 2) suffering comes from desire and attachment, 3) suffering can be overcome, it can be conquered, and 4) the path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path.  Charlie didn’t consider himself to be a Buddhist, but he was drawn to the teachings for their simplicity and elegance.  And it was Sogyal Rinpoche’s work, his attempt to explain the deep mysteries of life to the Western mind in his seminal work ‘The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’, where Charlie found the best explanation of this nature of mind that Gautama attempted to provide us with a guidebook to cross:

 

Just as the ocean has waves, or the sun has rays, so the mind’s own radiance is its thoughts and emotions.  The ocean has waves, yet the ocean is not particularly disturbed by them.  The waves are the very nature of the ocean.  Waves will rise, but where do they go?  Back into the ocean.  And where do the waves come from?  The ocean.  In the same manner, thoughts and emotions are the radiance and expression of the very nature of the mind.  They rise from the mind, but where do they dissolve?  Back into the mind

 

In effect, when we begin our study of the mind, we begin our study of the surface of the oceanic mind.  And it is the mind, in all its depth, that is the sky of life.  It is in meditation that we perceive this mind most directly, and when we begin to explore its source.  That all seemed to make sense to Charlie.  He didn’t completely understand, but he was beginning at least to be introduced to the age old metaphors that would help him understand the true nature of Self, or the Atman of the Vedic tradition, and come closer to answering those nagging, age old questions: “Who am I and why am I here?”, the same questions that the ancients were looking to provide answers for in their mythological and cosmological traditions.

There is just so much activity in the day of the Westerner.  It is virtually impossible for him to see through the illusion of the physical world into the gravity of the mind.  Taking up of the practice of meditation however, gives you a totally different perspective on this collection of daily events and experiences.  Furthermore, through the constant practice of the direct experience of the raw material for all existence, the light of truth began to become brighter for Charlie, and the nature of mind somewhat illuminated, if nothing else providing a more abstract and accurate construct from which to view the word around him and his life in general.

But where exactly can we step beyond the nature of thought into the realm of the mind?  How do you navigate through the realm of thought into the world from which all thoughts sprung forth?  Sure, thoughts would get finer and finer in deep meditation.  But as long as there was this sense of ‘I’, this sense of self that emanated from the attachment to thoughts and their associated emotions, Charlie felt trapped.  He felt bound.  The study of thought only revealed to him the subtle potency of thought, as well as the daunting nature of the task to go beyond thought, to lose yourself in the framework within which waves of thoughts originated.

The Buddhist tradition had some guidance here though.  Captured elegantly by Sogyal Rinpoche once again:

 

In the ordinary mind, we perceive the stream of thoughts as continuous; but in reality this is not the case.  You will discover for yourself that there is a gap between each thought.  When the past thought is past, and the future thought not yet arisen, you will always find a gap in which the Rigpa, the nature of mind, is revealed.  So the work of meditation is to allow thoughts to slow down, to make that gap become more apparent.

 

It is within this gap then, that we may find the gateway to the mind and the true nature of all experience.  The study of thought is simply the first step along the journey.  And this journey is in the realm of mind, leading from the small mind of the individual, to the greater massive mind of all consciousness.  Meditation then, that purely subjective experience, formed the core principle of the eastern traditions, the first step toward the understanding of reality, the path upon which one must travel if the true nature of the universe from which everything in it has sprung can be known.

Easier said than done of course, and despite the elegant intellectual framework within which the East painted this picture of mind, and the means with which to quell it for peace and ultimate realization, Charlie was still left with all the same day to day challenges of life, no matter how good or revealing a meditation practice might be or how much “insight” it provided.

 

[1] For a good description on the etymology and meaning of Kundalini, and its reflection in the theological traditions of both the East and the West, see http://www.transpersonal.com.au/kundalini/definition.htm.

[2] Sanskrit was the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and its offshoots Buddhism and Jainism and virtually all of the ancient texts of these religions were authored in Sanskrit.  Sanskrit’s position in the cultures of Greater India is akin to that of Latin and Greek in Europe and it has significantly influenced most modern languages of the Indian subcontinent, particularly in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.  The pre-Classical form of Sanskrit is known as Vedic Sanskrit, and it was the language used in the Vedas, the oldest texts of the Indo-Aryan peoples that described their cosmologies and rituals that survive and whose underlying rituals and theology carry into Hinduism and Buddhism even to this day.  This qualifies Rigvedic Sanskrit as one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European language family, the family which includes English and most European languages.

[3] The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Ramayana.  Besides its epic narrative of the Kurukshetra War and the fates of the Kauravas and the Pandava princes, the Mahabharata contains much philosophical and devotional material, such as a discussion of the four “goals of life” or purusharthas.  Among the principal works and stories that are a part of the Mahabharata are the Bhagavad Gita, the story of Damayanti, an abbreviated version of the Ramayana, and the Rishyasringa, often considered as works in their own right.  Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabharata.

[4] From the Sanskrit root term budh, meaning ‘to be awake’, ‘to understand’ or ‘to know’.

[5] Or extensions of our senses like microscopes, telescopes, thermometers, etc. which become relevant when looking at the results fields of the fields of physics, molecular-biology for example in modern times.

[6] Maṇḍala is a Sanskrit word meaning “circle.”  In the Buddhist and Hindu religious traditions sacred art often takes a mandala form.  The basic form of most Hindu and Buddhist mandalas is a square with four gates containing a circle with a center point.  These mandalas, or concentric diagrams, have spiritual and ritual significance in both Buddhism and Hinduism.  Mandalas may be employed for focusing attention of aspirants and adepts, as a spiritual teaching tool, for establishing a sacred space, and as an aid to meditation.  In Carl Jung’s psychoanalytic works, h saw the mandala as “a representation of the unconscious self, and believed his paintings of mandalas enabled him to identify emotional disorders and work towards wholeness in personality.

[7] Maya or Māyā in the Vedic and Yogic traditions has multiple meanings, usually translated into English as “illusion”, the concept centers on the philosophical principle that we do not experience the physical world itself but are rather a projection of it, and reality is created by us as a projection of our mind.  Māyā in these traditions is also referred to as the principal or deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal universe, resting on the principle that in fact reality is one and indivisible and it is only through the illusion reflected by the power of Maya that a distinction between the subject and the object is perceived.  For some mystics, this manifestation of duality and distinction between the observer and that which is observed is real (see dualistic Vedic philosophical systems such as Dvaita Vedanta), i.e. each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternal unity, is like a brief, disturbed drop of water from an unbounded ocean.  The goal of enlightenment is to understand this non-dual notion and the illusory nature of maya – more precisely, to experience this: to see intuitively that the distinction between the Self and the Universe is a false dichotomy that stems from ignorance and un-enlightenment.  Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_(illusion).

[8] https://www.hpinstitute.com/why-hpi/our-people/dr-jim-loehr

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