THE EXPERIENCE OF GOD IN FAR EASTERN RELIGIONS
Fr Henri Le Saux – Swami Abhishiktananda
A discussion of the experience of God in the world of the Far East can be no more than a sketch. On the one hand, in so far as it concerns the Vedanta, Buddhism or the Tao, what is immediately striking is that the equivalent of what is in the West called ‘the experience of God’ does not require any definition of this notion of ‘God’. Indeed, some traditions positively reject it, and others accept it merely as a starting-point or at best as a help on the way. On the other hand, the subject is too vast to allow anyone to have real competence in the matter except at a merely academic level. In any case, in the matter of experience, academic competence does not take us far. This observation is all the more important in that the eastern world, by contrast to the Greek and Mediterranean world, simply does not accept the primacy of the eidos, the logos, the idea, but in every age immediately concentrates on being, life, experience itself. For this reason intellectual communication has always been considered insufficient for the transmission of an interior mystery. The study of the Upanishads or the Dhammapada simply to discover what the Rishis or the Buddha thought has no sense. Any study of the Hindu or Buddhist scriptures which does not aim at deepening the spiritual life is a non-starter.
In the Hindu tradition in particular it is impossible to speak of this experience except in the non-dualist intimacy of the relationship of guru and disciple. The guru has no right to reveal its secret except to a disciple properly prepared, his heart at peace, free of all desire except the one desire for experiential knowledge of being, with total faith in his guru. This explains the repugnance of so many real Hindus for what we call ‘interreligious dialogue’, for its very conditions normally reduce such dialogue to the academic level, that is, to superficiality. The secret of the religious experience of the Upanishads cannot be discovered by talk or discussion, but only by sitting humbly at the feet of a Master and listening to him with open heart and unlimited trust.
This places in a paradoxical situation anyone who is asked to speak in public on this experience. No one can accept to speak of it without having a simply intellectual experience. So what can he transmit except mere words? ‘One who returns from an unfinished journey returns from nowhere’. One who knows remains silent, or like the Zen Masters, remains content with throwing out a few paradoxes, which may perhaps open the mind of this listener and allow him to discover the level of his being where alone he is himself.
Approaches to the Inner Mystery
Anyone who accepts to penetrate beyond appearances, conditioning, time, becoming – becoming in itself, around me, the universe – finds himself irresistibly carried towards an unknown source, inexpressible in itself, of all things, a mystery deeper than anything he is capable of feeling, thinking, knowing interiorly or exteriorly, of anything which can be conceived or imagined. This is something beyond, overflowing everywhere, enveloping everything from outside, which from inside is an irresistible call to plunge into an ever deeper abyss, at the very centre of oneself, of the world, at the startingpoint no less than the finishing-point of all human experience. Here, in the expression of this awareness of depth, are two fundamental attitudes, contrasting and meeting in the spiritual history of humanity. I may be allowed here to simplify, for in reality these two attitudes frequently overlap; nevertheless, it is important to grasp them and recognize their essential thrusts.
The Prophetic Experience
One is the approach of the so-called prophetic religions, which may also be called monotheist. Man finds himself in the presence of an Other, a Wholly Other, so other that it defies any conceivable notion of otherness. The presence of this Other is overwhelming. It is pure Transcendence. It is the LORD of the Bible, the Allah of the Koran. On him I depend totally. He has created me, he alone holds me in being; he alone can fill the new void which my sin has put between me and him. Complete dependence and infinite distance. Such an experience of God is the basis of the revelation received by Abraham, the basis of the whole Old Testament. This distance between God and humanity can be filled only by divine love. God makes a covenant with human beings, with a people whom he sets apart, to which he gives a Law and a cult precisely as a sign and guarantee of this covenant.
However, with the gospel comes a fullness of time which is no mere exterior covenant, a mere Law, a Torah, a word of God through intermediaries. This Word of the LORD which made the world, which gives the Covenant, which spoke through the prophets, itself becomes flesh, man, a member of the Chosen People. This infinite distance, this gulf between God and humanity has now been filled. God sends to earth his own Son, co-eternal, consubstantial with himself, reuniting in his theandric nature at the same time the mystery of God and the mystery of man. It is necessary that this abyss should be filled, as St Thomas Aquinas says at the beginning of his Ia-IIae: the most essential aspirations of human nature can be satisfied only by the vision, by the attainment of God himself.
The whole biblical and Christian tradition depends on this intuition of the Otherness of God, of a God who must fill the abyss between himself and us, and who, in order to do this, calls us to himself, makes us his own children in his only Son, who brings us to a union with himself on the same model and by participation in the mystery of his inner life, who gives us his Spirit, his life, his inner being. The distance is filled, and yet the distance always remains to be filled. This is the epecstasis of which Gregory of Nyssa loved to speak, and which lasts the whole of human eternity. Humanity is no longer restricted to time and to becoming. He is capable of rising, and yet at every moment runs the risk of falling. He must always cry to God, Kyrie eleison!
The Experience of Non-Duality
In total contrast to this experience of the Otherness of God stands the experience which leaves no room for the possibility of knowing or naming this Other, or even of being distinguished from it, so much has it encroached and made a void in being. The words of the Bible may here be recalled, ‘God is devouring fire, no one can see him and live.’ It is a question not first of the life of the flesh, of thought, of self, of consciousness of being, the human Ego which thinks and pronounces all day long, being burnt up and disappearing. It is no longer a question only of saying, ‘You are everything, my God, and I am nothing.’ For in so far as this Nothing, this supposed nothingness pronounces its own nothingness, by this very fact it considers itself to be something. No, there remains room only for silence, and not merely the silence of someone who has ceased speaking, but pure and absolute silence, for in reality there is no one to speak. It would be wholly insufficient, if not deceptive, to oppose the notions of transcendence and immanence. It is not a question of a God simply immanent, for again, immanent in what? Basically, true immanence and true transcendence form a pair. Perfect transcendence allows no existence. Those strong and oft-repeated terms of Deutero-Isaiah, ‘I am the LORD and there is no other’ must be understood in their most absolute sense as they are confirmed in the experience of the Upanishads, sat (atman, Brahman) Ekam eva advitiyam (1). In this annihilating experience, no one is capable of projecting anyone or anything objective, of positing another point in reality to which he could relate or which he could call God. In fact to reach this inner centre of self a human being is so taken up by the mystery as to be thenceforth beyond the ability to pronounce an ‘I’ or a ‘Thou’. The mystery has so engulfed him within himself that he has, so to speak, disappeared in his own eyes.
The proximity of this mystery that the prophetic tradition calls ‘God’ has burnt him up so totally that he no longer exists. This is totally different from discovering the mystery of God, the Absolute, as interior or immanent. The gulf has disappeared in the engulfing. The Transcendence perceived at this depth has annihilated the perceiver. The cry which issued forth – if any cry was possible – at the moment of being engulfed is, ‘But there is no gulf, no abyss, no face-to-face, no He-Who-Is-andthere- is-no-other to be named – advaita.’ Who even makes this cry? The one who pronounces it cannot identify himself with anything or anyone in existence. It is pure ASTI (is), pure AHAM ASMI (ego sum), according to the thunderous intuition of the Brihad-aranyaka Upanishad. Even AHAM (ego) is too much, for in human language an ‘I’ presupposes a ‘Thou’. ‘But,’ insists the Westerner, ‘surely this pure AHAM is God? What has happened to God? Who is God, when there is nothing there to be named?’ It is the pure silence of the unnameable, unpersonifiable God, discovered in the loss of one’s own self at the deepest level of the abyss of one’s being.
On this mystery the great teachers always refused to be drawn. The Buddha refused any question on this subject. The human spirit has such difficulty in keeping silent that of course the commentators in the traditions of Buddhism and the Vedanta have made some vague pronouncements. Nevertheless, the fundamental intuition is silence, for, anyone who tries to focus the reality which this experience has revealed, can only fall back into the sphere of phenomena, thoughts, ideas, symbols, when no symbol can penetrate thither. The great gurus set out first of all to achieve this great silence in the spirit of their disciples. They bring the disciple to lay a finger on the impermanence of everything which moves in the world of becoming and – on the other hand – the indestructible reality of the Ego at its fullest depth. Then they reveal to their disciples the great realities of the Upanishads. That is all: the spark has lit a new lamp. That is the awakening.
The experience of the mystery in itself transcends the level which India calls devas. The devas, dii, are various manifestations of this mystery, that is, ungraspable, impenetrable to thought, divine forces at work in the cosmos, powers or faculties of the psychophysiological world. At the apex is the deva deva, the original manifestation of this mystery. It is called Brahma (Brahman personified) Ishvara (the Lord), the Purusha, and also various names which the traditions of bhakti (devotion, devotional love) transmit. But for anyone marked by the great experience this Brahma, this Ishvara are perceived as the reflection in the world of the phenomenon of the Absolute, the Divine in itself. Of course, human thought cannot stop itself personifying this mystery, projecting onto it one’s own categories in order to be able to ‘live with it’. Anyone who experiences the advaita will also freely use this mode of expression in current language. Nevertheless, deep down, there is an inextinguishable thirst. The taste of truth which the experience of this Absolute has left in him does not permit him to identify with the Truth any of its manifestations. For him it is the marvellous, sparkling lila of the Lord at play across the worlds.
There is no doubt that this experience of advaita is achieved, at any rate on this last point, only by a small number of the élite. The most well-known case in our century has been Sri Ramana Maharshi of Tiruvannamalai. However, it would be wrong to imagine that it exists only in the case of wellknown Masters. It empties people of themselves to such an extent that, without special circumstances – let us say, the urgent call of the Spirit – those who have experienced it hardly seek to show themselves or speak in public. It is, moreover, certain that it leads a person into regions where the air of mental and spiritual life is so rarified that most are frightened. In many it remains merely underlying. Lived in its total appeal by the great Rishis of previous generations, it has marked the scriptures, the cult and thought and the whole culture of India. Even a Ramanudja, the paradigm of the philosopher- theologian who wants to retain at any price the definitive experience of a sort of encounter of vision and joy between God and the elect, avoids touching on the fundamental intuition of the advaita and will say in his symbolic language that creatures are the cosmic body of the Lord.
Paths of Experience
The ways of approach to this experience are those most frequently classified in India under three principal titles of karma, bhakti, jnana.
The Way of Karma
Etymologically karman means ‘act’. The primitive sense is a cultic act, an act in the religious sphere. As in the Jewish Torah, the entire life of the Brahmin is directed by the furrow of the liturgical act, for nothing in life escapes the divine Omnipresence. The domain of the profane does not exist; everything participates in the sacred. This spiritual way is probably the most ancient known in India. Its golden age was the so-called period of the Brahamas, which immediately followed the properly Vedic age and led to the Upanishad reaction.
Everything depends, both in this world and the other, on the perfect realization of the cult and the exact observance of the shastras (laws). The mystical life is rarely traceable. The sacramental sign is primary. Linked to the ritual karma is the karma of ascetical practices of yoga, which are themselves reactions to the primacy of the cult and to the supremacy of the priestly caste. Faith in ritual symbols is no longer sufficient; there is desire to experience the divine, to live in ecstatic states. It cannot be denied that the intensive practice of yoga often leads to such experiences, but at the same time it must be admitted that this is still on the level of phenomena and far distant from the very pure experience of the advaita described in the Upanishads and recalled above.
There is also a modern version of the karma-marga securely rooted in the Indian tradition – the Bhagavad-Gita for example – which seems to owe a great deal to the impact of the gospel on the Hindu soul. This is the act in form of service, sava, the karma considered as service of the human community. It suffices to mention Mahatma Gandhi and his great disciple Vinoba Bhava. There is no doubt that such karma is eminently a liberation. More than any ritual act, and even more than any too definitive act of ascesis, it lifts a person out of himself and his instinctive selfinvolvement, thus leaving a person free and totally docile to the Spirit.
The Way of Bhakti
Bhakti means ‘faith’, ‘piety’, ‘devotion’. It is the Indian spiritual path most closely related to the Christian spiritual tradition. The Bhakta is attached to a personification of the Abolute such as Shiva, to an avatara (or divine descendant) such as Rama and Krishna, to the divine Shakti. He serves his God with a mind and will totally unified, meditation, cult, song, satsang or company of saints, a service of those consecrated to the Lord. As the Bhagavad-Gita in particular teaches, there is nothing in the life of the faithful one which is not consciously ordered to God and inspired by love of him.
The meditation of the Hindu bhakta is, however, much less a reflection on the attributes of his God (lshta devata) than an ever more simplified look centred on him, a regard in which the regarder is progressively absorbed into the regarded. The Lord Bhagavan responds with his love to the devotion of his bhakta. He fills with his grace the gulf between them and finally identifies himself with his devotee.
There are extremely diverse forms of bhakti, ranging from the purest to the most emotional. In every case prapatti or total abandon is the high point of bhakti, which constitutes its value and supreme efficacy.
It should not be thought that in every case the ways of bhakti and karman are inherently inferior ways. Everyone has received from God a particular temperament and special grace which determine the ways that person must follow in this life. When the paths of bhakti and karman are followed to perfection they are by no means less liberating than the path of jnana, for they are no less demanding. One need only refer to the classic Bhaktsutras of Narada to realize that the path of bhakti contains in a wrapped-up form all the essentials of jnana.
The Way of Inana
The path of Inana is that which aims directly at the Mystery without being preoccupied with its signs or cultural expressions, whether mythical, conceptual or historical. Inana is, if you like, the royal, aristocratic way, which does not mean that it is esoteric. It glides in a life-giving way through all the margas (ways). It is the way of the monk par excellence, as we shall see below. It has no interest in the devas, those personifications of the Mystery of the divine power detectable throughout the world of phenomena, whose service and love lead it to the heaven where they dwell (svarga). Nor has it any interest in ritual or ascetical practices; it aims directly at the liberating intuition.
The term inana means ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’. Too often , and incorrectly, the way of inana is taken to be a way of speculation or abstraction, and is too closely equated with the various gnoses which marked the end of Hellenism and the beginnings of Christianity. Inana is not discovered as a conclusion of laborious reflections. Nor has it anything to do with ritually transmitted formulations which would provoke inner illumination as if by magic, since all this remains in the order of the sign. Inana is, however, a secret knowledge, a mysterium fidei, which no one can reach without being lifted to a superior level of consciousness. It is a knowledge which takes up the whole being and renews it to its very roots.
The way of inana refuses all signs, even that of a personified God. However useful a personified God would be in the flight to the spiritual life, such a God even becomes an obstacle as soon as the faithful becomes attached to the image of his God, and by so doing necessarily focuses again on himself. The way of inana is essentially a way of dhyana, silent meditation. Its purpose is to focus consciousness on itself, not to allow it to disperse itself in the world of images and abstract thought, to draw it back ceaselessly to the very source of all spiritual activity. This is an unconditional awakening to oneself.
The central point of oneself can be discovered only by oneself. Even the scriptures, even the guru can only point the way, at best push open the door of the sanctuary. No one other than oneself can enter into oneself. This is why the supreme realization, brahmavidya, cannot properly speaking be attained. It is already there from the very beginning, the very foundation of being. Inana is a simple awakening, an illumination about which nothing can be said except ASTI, that it is! One opens one’s eyes and sees the sun which shines up there! The state of inana is a state of total simplicity and transparency. It is a state not born, sahaja, but inborn. It is the natural human condition, the profound human truth. It is contained in the cognitio matutina of Augustine.
The way of inana is, properly speaking, not even a way in the sense of karma or bhakti, since in reality there is nothing to attain or to receive. At best there is a preparation for this awakening. The awakening can, of course, be helped and provoked by some stroke, for example a noise. Nevertheless, it is not the stroke or the noise which provokes that wonderful perception of oneself in one’s cosmic environment which constitutes the condition of awakening.
A human being is in time and in the world. Human senses are open to the external and there is no mental development without successive sense-impressions. Self-attainment occurs only in the midst of the universe and of human society. However, the human being is an interiority, an in-oneself. It is precisely this interiority which imparts identity and permits the assimilation of external data.
From the very first awakening of consciousness at the heart of the universe a human being is in search of himself. He searches in cultic and religious myths, in physical and human sciences. But beyond this he constantly devines his own self, beyond the data given him by his own reflections and by the most advanced psychological techniques. Neti, neti, as the Upanishad proclaims, ‘Not this, not that.’ A gulf separates himself from himself, so to speak. A human being too often remains content with myths and so-called religious formulae in order to live this ‘beyond’ which he calls ‘God’ at the level of his thoughts and affectivity. He projects this deity beyond himself as if to liberate himself from the Absolute which both fills and empties him, the whole domain of the devas of religion. However, the moment comes in the history of humanity - and increasingly in the history of an individual human being – when someone is forced to admit that nothing of what he thinks, feels or experiences is really himself, nor really God, nor really this Abolute. In fact as long as there is a self in search of a self, one has not found oneself. Or rather, in this discovery, one is oneself discovered and realized, beyond all changing and successive manifestations of oneself.
If man is in time, he is also beyond time. The Ego which I pronounce at the age of sixty is no different from the Ego which I pronounced when I was ten years old. When a person recollects himself and seeks to discover the origin of this Ego, the moment of his awakening to this Ego, no matter how far he goes back in his memory, he finds the same Ego which is there, the basis of all, the source from which everything flows, but which in itself cannot be grasped.
Vedantic meditation aims precisely at discovering this central point of being, this ‘immobile’, this acala which defies all becoming and remains untouched by whatever happens to it. In his consciousness of sense-impressions the human being is constantly discovering himself, thinking and acting. The Rishis of the Upanishads appeal to man to discover himself simply as being, to realize this absolutely pure consciousness of being, this infinitesimal point which is at the origin of all consciousness, or all thought, transcending at the same time all particular thought and the time itself when it occurs. Beyond all conditioning of time and thought stand the Real, sat, the Ego. Here alone man attains himself at his most interior, realizing himself in the absolute of his person.
What about God, then? This is precisely the purest experience of God, beyond a concept of God. Until then God was a concept, a ‘projection’. God was known only in the idea one had of him, even if love in its irresistible power transcended the limits of thought and shot towards him like a rocket pointed into space. Here we are beyond the eidos, beyond the concept. The experience of the absolute of the Ego, of pure consciousness, has touched the Absolute itself. But even in this experience the whole of God and oneself has been burnt up. The shadow gives place to the Truth. The Worship in spirit and in truth of which Jesus spoke comes on earth to claim its primacy.
Awaking to himself, man awakes to God. Awaking to himself, he is awoken to himself, beyond God and himself, so to speak, in the eternal silence that Christians call the Mystery of the Father, where the Spirit leads, this Spirit which the Word of God become man came to spread on the earth.
Such is the experience of the divine Mystery which is at the base of the religious experience of the East. It is certainly different from the experience of the prophetic religions, but no less authentic. It is a historical fact, and certainly the divine plan, that the Christian revelation occurred in the framework of a prophetic religion, Judaism. However, Christianity cannot claim that universality which it sees as inherent to its Mystery, until it has recognized and integrated this spiritual experience of the East. In addition, the Mystery of Jesus exceeds the so-called prophetic experience not less than the so-called Vedantic experience. This is, however, not the place to study this necessary osmosis.
It would be valuable at this point to study the means to arrive at the awakening which the Vedantic spiritual tradition offers. Here, however, we can say only a few brief words, since the subject is discussed in the other papers of this Congress, especially those which discuss the integration into western Christian monasticism of the ascetical and mystical methods of Hindu and Buddhist monasticism. Allusions was made above to practices of yoga which aim to provoke metaphysical experiences. There is also a yoga, the raja-yoga, which aims exclusively at preparing this awakening of the pure consciousness of oneself. These are above all exercises of progressive mental concentration, dharana, with such preliminary elements as breath-control, pranayama, and stability of posture, asana.
In the central monastic tradition of India the way of inana is privileged. It suffices to refer to the fundamental texts of the Samnyasoupanishads. There are, of course, sectarian monks, even ritualist monks, devoted to the practices of bhakti, not to mention those who have chosen the way of seva-karma (service of others). This simply witnesses to the prodigious variety of the living spiritual tradition of India.
It seems right, in any case, that Christian monks of India should allow themselves to be led by the Spirit to the complete stripping of the way of inana, which corresponds so fully to their vocation and prepares the full expansion of everything contained in their call. It falls to them more than to anyone else in the Christian tradition to integrate into the spiritual riches of Christ’s faithful this marvellous wealth of the experience of inana, without which there will always be something lacking to the glory of the Church.
Published in the Acts of the Congress of Bangalore, 1973, and also in Les Yeux de Lumière, spiritual writings, edited by André Gozier and Joseph Lemarié, (Centurion, 1979), p. 23-37.
(1) Atman, the Self, the most intimate principle of human being ; Brahman the supreme principle of all being. Ekam eva advitiyam unique and there is no other.