Monthly Archives: June 2021

Some Notes on “I,” “Me,” “Mine”

I am not going to delve into grammar or the use of language, though that is a topic worthy of reflection also.  This is simply a collection of observations, reflections, questions, etc., on a topic of enormous importance for all the great spiritualities and all the major religions.  To put it more negatively way, though clearer, if you get this  wrong, you will get lost in a serious way.  I speak from experience!  So:  Who am I?  What is being pointed at when we have the word “I”?   The great spiritual question!

Lets start with Monchanin and Abhishiktananda.  Monchanin was a genuine intellectual, a brilliant thinker who was well-read in theology and philosophy, and at the same time a true spiritual man who sought to somehow translate the spiritual heritage of India into Christian terms.  Abhishiktananda was very different in personality and in his approach to India once he really got into it.  He was very impatient with intellectual /conceptual investigations, but rather sought to dive straight into the experience of India’s Advaita tradition, especially as exemplified by the sannyasi.  The two men respected each other, and each had their own strengths and weaknesses.  But also each had their criticisms of the other.  Monchanin had this interesting thing to say about Abhishiktananda toward the end of their companionship at Shantivanam.  He was worried about the so-called experiences that Abhishiktananda had related from his extensive sojourns in solitude and meditation.  Here is the quote from a letter he wrote:

“Serious divergences between us have cast a shadow over these last years; I think he goes too far in his concessions to Hinduism, and it seems to me more and more doubtful that the essence of Christianity can be recovered on the other side of Advaita.  Advaita, like yoga and more than it, is an abyss.  Whoever in an experience of vertigo throws himself into it does not know what he will find at the bottom.  I am afraid he may find himself rather than the living trinitarian God.”

Very interesting indeed!  That last sentence is very telling, and it shows a faulty line of thought.  But how to proceed to evade Monchanin’s conceptual trap? 

From a certain standpoint it is impossible to tell what another person is experiencing, but there are certain signs and signals about what that experience may be all about.  When it comes to the Ultimate Reality which we call God, I certainly don’t mean anything dramatic—I am not a member of the “miracle and special effects” school of religious authenticity.  No, what we might look for is a depth of person there, a deepening of compassion, a broadening of vision, an inner freedom….and from what I can tell from Abhishiktananda’s diary and letters, that is largely there.  But, then again, we really can’t know, and it’s best to leave individual cases alone.  But Monchanin’s words do raise a legitimate possibility of an inquiry in a general sense.  He seems to be saying that when we go deep into our self in meditation we might only encounter our own self OR God.  He assumes the “separate self” that then must be “united” with God.  This is who you are and the whole point of life and existence and Christian identity.  But advaita presents a different vision of who we are.

 Monchanin approaches advaita conceptually, and it’s practically impossible to reconcile that with these Christian concepts of “who I am,” and Christian concepts of that “I’s” relationship to the Ultimate Reality.    But Monchanin’s concern is legitimate because there is a very real way of getting trapped within one’s own ego identity within one’s extensive meditation.  Some American Zen people have written a whole book about it.  And consider these cautionary words from Ramana Maharshi:

“He meditates, he thinks he is meditating, he is pleased with the fact that he is meditating; where does that get him, apart from strengthening his ego?”

(Words that resonate well with our Desert Fathers!)

Authentic advaita is NOT about “supersizing” the ego self; quite the contrary.

But I also fear that Monchanin’s words do seriously lead one away from a most deep and profound realization.  I think he misses something important because he is so intensely committed to standard traditional theological language; and that great philosopher of language, Wittgenstein, warned us:  the limits of our language are the limits of our world and our thinking.  A Christian advaita definitely shatters the usual patterns of Christian theology, and also how we answer that question:  Who am I?  A number of Christian mystics and profound theologians have caught a glimpse of a Christian advaita without using that same language.

Consider these quote from Catherine of Genoa, a late medieval mystic:

“In God is my being, my I, my strength, my bliss, my desire. But this I that I often call so…in truth I no longer know what the I is, or the Mine, or desire, or the good, or bliss.”

“I see without eyes, and I hear without ears. I feel without feeling and taste without tasting. I know neither form nor measure; for without seeing I yet behold an operation so divine that the words I first used, perfection, purity, and the like, seem to me now mere lies in the presence of truth. . . . Nor can I any longer say, “My God, my all.” Everything is mine, for all that is God’s seem to be wholly mine. I am mute and lost in God…God so transforms the soul in Him that it knows nothing other than God, and He continues to draw it up into His fiery love until He restores it to that pure state from which it first issued.”

And then there’s this more radical statement from her:

“My “me” is God nor do I recognize any other “me” except my God himself.”

Basically, Catherine is a pointer to a Christian version of nondualism.  It is there.  And it can be found in a number of other Christian mystics, like Eckhart.  (And interestingly enough, Catherine’s words are very much in tune with Rabia, the great female Sufi.)  Abhishiktananda discovered this nondualism through his immersion in India and the Upanishads, the sannyasi tradition, and the lived experience of the holy men he encountered there.  He discovered that the “I Am” of God is spoken in his heart, and from that Absolute flows the little, the relative, the contingent “I am” of his own being.  This “little I am” is what we might call the peripheral ego, the “nafs” of the Sufis; and modern spirituality speaks of “letting it go,” the Sufis call it “fana,” “annihilation(!), the old Christian mystics call it a “death of the self.”  Your “I am” gets lost in the “I Am” of God.  But this will seem like becoming “nobody,” a nothing with no name, etc.  

Modern sensibility is not comfortable to say the least with the language of classical spirituality of any tradition; you know, all that stuff about “me” dying to self, annihilation,  etc.  (even the language of Jesus in the Gospels causes some to wince or just ignore or interpret very metaphorically).  The science of psychology is all about building up the ego, helping it function well.  It does not know or recognize the area of experience which we are alluding to.  A pop guru of the ‘60s, Ram Dass, once said that psychologists are “fender repairmen”—might be good to remember that he had been a Harvard psychologist before he “dropped out.”  What he means is that psychology is really only concerned with the periphery of the human identity, not the core reality.  It cannot answer the question: who am I?  It cannot recognize that the ego self is embedded in a much deeper sense of self that cannot be objectified, cannot be the object of our analysis.

An entry from Abhishiktananda’s Diary, a reflection on the moment of his massive heart attack that soon led to his death:

“Seeing myself so helpless, incapable of any thought or movement, I was released from being identified with this ‘I’ which until then had thought, willed, rushed about, was anxious about each and every thing.  Disconnection!  That whole consciousness in which I habitually lived was no longer mine, but I, I still was.”

Perhaps we can borrow something from Buddhism to shed some more light on this topic.  Mahayana Buddhism has this central doctrine of the Two Truths: relative truth and absolute truth.  There are extensive and elaborate explanations of these, but here is a brief, succinct account from the magazine Lion’s Roar:

“What is the relationship between absolute reality-whatever that may be-and the relative world we inhabit? That question is at the heart of all religions. Mahayana Buddhism’s answer is called the two truths.

Relative truth includes all the dualistic phenomena- ourselves, other beings, material objects, thoughts, emotions, concepts-that make up our lives in this world. These are sometimes called maya, or illusion, because we mistakenly believe they are solid, separate, and independent realities. But the problem is not relative truth itself, which is basically good, but our misunderstanding of its nature. That is revealed when we understand….

Absolute truth is the reality beyond dualism of any kind. It’s also the true nature of relative phenomena. In Mahayana Buddhism, it can be called emptiness or interdependence. Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term “interbeing.” In Vajrayana Buddhism, absolute reality is also referred to as space, complete openness, or primordial purity.

The two truths are what’s called a provisional teaching in Buddhism-helpful for where we are on our path but not the final truth. The final truth is that there is only one reality, and it unites the relative and absolute. Absolute truth is the true nature of the relative. Relative truth is the manifestation of the absolute.”

So perhaps it can be helpful to see our little ego self to be part of that relative truth of our everyday conventional existence.  It has its importance as it is the ground of the manifestation of the absolute truth of our existence and our identity.  Therefore it is good and proper to have a healthy ego, and the psychologist has a true role in this; but he/she do not have access to the absolute truth of our identity with the tools of their profession.

All human beings, but especially Westerners, have this amazing capacity to build up this ego self, becoming an elaborate construct like one of those fantastic sand castles some kids build out of beach sand.  And I am afraid this ego construction is about as durable as that beach construction!  Thus, the deep-seated anxiety about the whole project, and the therapist is there to help us live with that.  We use wealth, power, status, achievements, reputation, sex, badges and markers of all kinds, etc., etc. in this construction.  Even formal religion does not always provide a true diagnostic of what’s going on but in fact enhances the whole project with a religious clad version of all the above.  Thomas Merton once said that it is truly a gift to meet the Zen “man of no title.”

The issue is “personhood.”  I am a person; God is a person.  Think how important that is especially in western thought.  Politics and philosophy and religion and economics and psychology all are focused on this “reality.”  Every one is looking for personal happiness, personal fulfillment, personal success, personal satisfaction, etc.  But what is this “person,” what is personhood?”  Again, what is this “I” that is doing all this seeking?  Conservative Christians reject Buddhism and other Asian religions because these seem to deny or diminish this reality we call “personhood,” in regard to both the human and the divine.  After all, what’s important for them is the “personal relationship” to Jesus, to God.  The personhood of God and the personhood of the human being are the two poles around which their whole religious consciousness moves.  In a sense one can see what their concern is; but one can also see the danger in this language of utter superficiality and trivializing the religious journey—which happens all too often.  The “nafs,” the peripheral ego, becomes the norm and the guiding light to delineate “personhood.”  Modern western culture almost automatically sets you up for this problem.  But they also make the same mistake that Monchanin made, overlooking something very important.

Here I will recall one of my favorite quotes from Aquinas:  “At the end of all our knowing we know God as something unknown; we are united with him as with something wholly unknown.”  Indeed.

And who we are, then, is immersed in the depths of that very Mystery.  At one point Abhishiktananda asks: “what constitutes personhood?”  What Jesus communicates is  at the heart of personhood in the absolute sense: that experience of being “from the Father” and “going to the Father.”  If you wish you can drop that Semitic metaphor of “father” and simply insert “Mystery.”  Who you are is embedded in the Mystery of the Ultimate Reality.  As Abhishiktananda well recognized, Jesus reveals the ground of our advaita.

Let us conclude with a poem from Thomas Merton, “The Fall”:

“There is no where in you a paradise that is no place and there

  You do not enter except without a story.

  To enter there is to become unnameable.

 Whoever is there is homeless for he has no door and no identity 

          with which to go out and to come in.

Whoever is nowhere is nobody, and therefore cannot exist except

           as unborn.

No disguise will avail him anything.

Such a one is neither lost nor found.

But he who has an address is lost.

They fall, they fall into apartments and are securely established!

They find themselves in streets.  They are licensed

 To proceed from place to place 

They now know their own names

They can name several friends and know

Their own telephones must some time ring.

If all telephones ring at once , if all names are shouted at once and

             all cars crash at one crossing:

If all cities explode and fly away in dust

Yet identities refuse to be lost.  There is a name and number for


There is a definite place for bodies, there are pigeon holes for 


Such security can business buy!

Who would dare to go nameless in such a secure universe?

Yet, to tell the truth, only the nameless are at home in it.

They bear with them in the center of nowhere the unborn flower

                 of nothing;

This is the paradise tree.  It must remain unseen until words end

                 and arguments are silent.”


Some Notes on Kashmir Shaivism

There are quite a few authentic, integral, deep spiritual traditions in our world.  Each with its own fascinating strengths; each with its own peculiar weaknesses.  We have come in human evolution and development to the point that none seem able to stand  by themselves without a very real diminishment.  All traditions do seem to really need each other in order to cover  those areas of human experience that are not sufficiently explored or even neglected in their own path.  Examples:  Merton’s comments in Asia on how the Tibetans had gone so much further in understanding our mind/consciousness in the spiritual path; and the Dalai Lama’s comment on how much he is impressed with Christianity’s focus on compassion and works of mercy.  

Kashmir Shaivism may well be one of the least known and least appreciated spiritual traditions.  It’s “home ground” is of course Kashmir, a beautiful area in the northwest of India.  With the Himalayas close by, with beautiful green valleys filled with lakes, with a mild climate, it was always an attractive place.  When the Brits controlled India, their top people would vacation in Kashmir or get away from the heat of the south and float on Dal Lake in a luxurious houseboats with servants.  More importantly, for centuries this area was extremely rich in religious traditions.  The Sufis were there; the Buddhists were there; and, yes, that particular form of Hinduism now known as Kashmir Saivism.  

The political situation that developed in the 20th century destroyed most of that.  Kashmir got caught in a violent tug-of-war struggle between Pakistan and India.  In part that is the responsibility of the Brits in the way they left India; in part it is of course more complicated than that.  The tragic thing is that this is only a part of that fierce animosity between certain elements in Islam and certain elements in Hinduism.  Today it is mostly populated by Islamic people, and adherents of Kashmir Saivism will largely be found elsewhere.

India is the home of an incredibly varied religious traditions.  To locate Kashmir Saivism we first note that it belongs in the nondualist camp of spiritualities.  India has been the home of 4 major nondualist traditions:  Madhyamika—basically the Buddhist foundation of all Mahayana paths including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism; Vijnanavada (sometimes known as “Yogachara”); Advaita Vedanta, especially Shankara’s interpretation of it; and finally Kashmir Saivism.  

To be frank about it, I myself am not really attracted by this mode of spirituality.  It obviously is a rich and deep tradition; it obviously still offers something significant to a goodly number of people, both the very educated and also average folks.  But as for myself even as I find a number of very interesting and intriguiging insights within Kashmir Saivism,  I am averse to its complexity; seems so needless to me—same holds for me in regard to Tibetan Buddhism.  If you want to get just a little taste of that complexity dip into one of these books:  Abhinavagupta’s Hermeneutics of the Absolute by Bettina Baumer or The Doctrine of Vibration by Mark S.G. Dyczkowski.  The complexity I am referring to is not primarily one of concepts or ideas—I always enjoy the challenge of understanding deep/difficult lines of thought. No, what I am referring to is a whole religious complex of symbol, ritual, practice, etc.  For one thing, I am simply not attracted by invitations to a panoply of complex meditation practices wherever they be found.  That simply could be just me.  After all, my native tradition of Catholicism can look very complex to an outsider, but being born and educated in it I navigate around that seeming needless complexity to get to the heart of it.   Almost impossible to do with a completely different tradition—unless, like Zen, it already points to that unspeakable simplicity at the heart of all traditions.  Here we can remind ourselves something that Merton pointed out in Asia:  when we get behind all the “complexity” of these various traditions, we find something profoundly and utterly simple which gets covered over by layer after layer of myth, ritual, concepts, even superstition and magic—how true this is of my Catholicism!

Bettina Baumer, whom I mentioned above, is both a world-class scholar of Kashmir Saivism and a devoted adherent.  She gave a talk at a gathering to honor the memory of Abhishiktananda in which she expressed the opinion that he was closer to Kashmir Saivism than to Advaita Vedanta (at least the dominant Shankara interpretation of it).  As Baumer explains it, Abhishiktananda was not really acquainted with explicit Kashmir Saivism, but his relating of his spiritual experience and his read of the Upanishads indicates that he had stumbled on the central teachings of this tradition and would have been more at home in it.   Perhaps, perhaps not.   Abhishiktananda did express his displeasure with Shankara’s treatment of the Upanishads and his teachings: “too much conceptualization.”  He preferred to deal with the Upanishads unfiltered; there he felt he was more in touch with his own nondual experience.  But we do have to consider this:  for Abhishiktananda the focal point and total symbol of what was India’s most valuable gift to western religious consciousness was wholly contained in the figure of the sannyasi.  Shankara himself was a sannyasi, and the whole Advaita Vedanta tradition elevated the figure of the sannyasi into a transcendent symbol.  This is not quite true of Kashmir Saivism.  It does not elevate that kind of external radical renunciation.   There is no “class distinction” between sannyasi and householder; all spiritual work is purely interior.  Yes, the true adherent will live simply, like the last great holy man of Kashmir, Lakshman Joo, but he will not be seen to engage in radical renunciation.  Yes, Lakshman Joo was a vegetarian, was celibate, dressed simply, but certainly lived more comfortably than the sannyasis Abhishiktananda admired.  Abhinavagupta, the great scholar-saint of ancient Kashmir Saivism, was a married man and raised 3 children.  And many of Lakshman Joo’s disciples are married with families.  It’s a different kind of path than the Upanishadic sannyasis.  Just my conjecture, because I have not read this anywhere, but with the mass movement of Islamic people into Kashmir about eight centuries ago, a lot of Sufis came there also.  These may have had a large influence on a lot of Kashmir Saivism because their mode of spirituality is very similar.

To follow up more on the above, one of Kashmir Saivism ‘s more intriguing and, to me, most attractive aspect is its radical nondualism.  By that I mean something special.  What I am referring to is the push of religious nondualism into relativizing or deconstructing all the dualisms people live by.  Consider this concrete example: the caste system, not as dominant in India as in the past, but still a strong influence on social and religious life in India.  The key adherents of Advaita Vedanta, belonging to the brahmin caste, have traditionally been zealous upholders of the caste system.  It appears that their staunch nondualism is only in regard to the Ultimate Reality, and there are no social consequences to that.  No so with Kashmir Saivism.  Consider these words by the holy man, Lakshman Joo as found on the website run by his followers :

“The fifth significant difference between Kashmir Śaivism and Vedānta concerns the question of who is fit to practice this monistic teaching. Vedānta holds that this teaching can only be practiced by “worthy people” such as brahmins with “good qualities.” In fact, Śaṁkarācārya holds that Vedānta is meant only for saṁyāsins1 and not others. From the Vedāntic point of view, women and other castes are not allowed to practice the Vedāntic system. This point of view, however, is not recognized by our Kashmir Śaivism. Kashmir Śaivism teaches that this monistic thought can be practiced by anyone, man or woman, without the restriction of caste, creed, or color. In fact, our Śaivism teaches us that this thought can be practiced more fruitfully by women than by men.

On this website there is also a full explanation of the difference between Kashmir Saivism and Advaita Vedanta:

In the book previously mentioned, Bettina Baumer has this quote from Abhinavagupta:

“In Trika Sastras, this very activity almost without any curb is worship.  All things are available for the fulfilment of this worship.  The course of knowledge has been described in detail.  Regarding the castes—brahmanas, etc. – there is no fixed principle, for the caste distinction is artificial.  The specification that brahmanas alone are entitled for instruction can convince only the silly herd.”

And Bettina herself:

“This hierarchical sense of inferiority and superiority applies practically in the social realm to the caste system which has no place in Anuttara.  That this is not only a theoretical statement but has practical implications in Trika has been shown in the context of adhikara:  there Abhinavagupta ridicules the restrictions of Sastras to a particular, especially the brahmana caste.”

So…..very interesting…..   Just think of slavery in the Christian context.  Right from its origins.   Amazing to me how St. Paul missed the boat on this point badly, and got early Christianity orientated wrongly on this point, with a lot other implications.  Recall Paul’s argument:  he is thoroughly overwhelmed by the reality of the Risen Christ, and his theological elaboration of the implications is awesome, especially considering the background and culture of the Semitic mindset.  When he comes to this widespread social phenomenon of slavery, he points out that in the light of the Resurrection no one is really a “slave” anymore; there is no second—class citizenship in the kingdom of God.  Good enough, but then in a curious twist of logic he goes on to say that if you as a Christian are a slave owner, treat your slave like a brother in Christ.  Apparently there may be no slaves in the kingdom of God, but here it’s ok even for Christians.  If one failed to get that message, Paul makes it explicit:  Slaves, obey your masters.  And because of Paul’s blindness in this regard, Christianity was saddled with a muddled approach to slavery and other issues for over a thousand years.

Let me quote a few lines from one of Abhinavagupta’s key mystical writings as translated by Bettina Baumer:


From:  Eight Verses on the Unsurpassable

1. There is no need of spiritual progress,

     nor of contemplation, disputation or discussion,

     nor meditation, concentration nor even the effort of prayer.

     Please tell me clearly:  What is supreme Truth?

     Listen:  Neither renounce nor possess anything,

     share in the joy of the total Reality

     and be as you are!

2.  In reality no world of transmigration exists,

      so how can one talk about bondage?

      To try to liberate one free already

       Is futile, for he was never in bondage.

       All this just creates a delusion like that

        of the shadow of a ghost or a rope mistaken for a snake.

       So neither renounce nor possess anything.

       Enjoy yourself freely, resting in your self,

       just as you are!

4.   This bliss is not comparable to that which is experienced

       through riches or wine or even union with the beloved.

       The dawning of that Light is not to be compared

       with the light of a lamp or that of the sun or moon.

      The joy that is felt when one is freed from the burden

       of accumulated differences can only be compared

       to the relief felt while setting on the ground a heavy weight.

       The dawning of the Light is like finding a lost treasure:

       the state of universal non-duality.

Think of the words of Jesus in the Gospel: the treasure buried in the field, the light burden vs. the heavy burden which we carry, etc.  Think of the Sermon on the Mount … it really is only understandable from the standpoint of a nondual spiritual consciousness.  Otherwise we tend to dismiss it as “exaggerated,” or “simply a lofty unreachable goal in this life,” or “idealized ethics” or “symbolic,” or some other rationalization for not letting these words be a real map to our real life.  There’s so much more that could be said along these lines, but I will leave it at that.  Suffice it to say, that among all the teachings of Abhinavagpta that I read and (think) I understand, none is a problem to the heart of the Reality of the Christ.

Some interesting and (to me) appealing notions in Kashmir Saivism:

a.  Anuttara—“the Unsurpassable,” “the Absolute,” “that which has nothing beyond it,” etc.  Perhaps this is “the Father” of the Gospels; perhaps it is the Godhead of Meister Eckhart, etc.  

b.  anupaya— the “no means,” “no-way,” the highest of the four ways of liberation.   You’ll find this idea among the deepest of the Desert Fathers, Zen Masters, Sufis, etc.

c.  pratyabhijna— philosophy of recognition.  “Recognition” of who you really are is the key to all true spiritual paths, and so it is with Kashmir Saivism.  Read the New Testament in the light of this.   There is the way of “recognition”  vs. the way of “achieving” or “earning” or “working for” …..otherwise known as “salvation through works.”

Truly, the tradition of Kashmir Saivism is blessed with a beauty, a power, and a vision that we all can learn from!