ST 4119. Afterlife 9
Absorption into the Mystical Infinite
In our previous post on reincarnation, we saw that the cycle of rebirth extends our finitude into the afterlife. The law of karma ensures that any harm we cause in this life will have a punishing effect on us in the afterlife. Might some sort of salvation await us beyond the cycle of rebirth? Might we find solace through absorption into the mystical infinite? Can we attain the mystical infinite while still in this incarnation?
Yes, is the answer mystics offer.
I suspect that contrary to the radical individualism of Raph Waldo Emerson’s “self-reliance,” our soul’s deeper yearning is for communion, unity, oneness. This yearning for oneness comes to dramatic expression in Jacob Naverud’s Africanesque choral offering, “Sisi ni Moja” (We Are One). Might our yearning for both social communion and spiritual unity derivve from our intuitive mysticus (mystical intuition)?
Are you a mystic?
Are you attuned to the intuitive mysticus? Do you have a mystical sensibility? Do you find the plurality of perspectives and their competition distressing? Do you find yourself searching for the underlying unity, the glue that holds all things together? Does your inner self respond to an intuitive desire to be at one with all that is?
If even a spark of mystical yearning flares in your consciousness, you’ll want to get to know Ādi Śaṅkarācārya (circa. 700-750 CE). If you can’t pronounce that long name, just call him Shankara. During the Hindu period Shankara interpreted the ancient scriptures, the Vedas and Upanishads. It was Shankara who gave us Advaita, non-dualism. In short, dualism is a delusion. Non-dualism or oneness is the truth. To realize in your or my consciousness the oneness of all things is to experience the truth of reality. Got it? Like it? Now, you’re a non-dualist.
But are you a mystic? Start by imagining yourself to be a water droplet. Now, imagine falling into the ocean. In the ocean you dissipate and become mixed with everything wet. Your individual perspectival consciousness will be replaced by cosmic or universal consciousness. Pure consciousness.
You’ve just become a mystic.
Let’s look in a bit more detail at Indian non-dualism.
Advaita Anthropology and Soteriology
The key that unlocks the Advaita gate to absorption into the mystical infinite is the equation: ātman = Brahman. The focal idea is pure consciousness. The Hinduwebsite tells us…
“…pure consciousness is that consciousness which is free from all the impurities, which prevent you from being and knowing who you are. What are the impurities? They are thoughts, feelings, emotions, disturbances, memorial and perceptual knowledge, modifications, desires, attachments, egoism, qualities, attributes, perceptions, cognition, delusion, ignorance, states, duality, division, objectivity, and so on.”
Ultimately, there is only one reality. That reality is Brahman. Brahman is sometimes called ‘God’, even though there are many other gods who are addressed in Hindu worship. God as Brahman is all in all. That includes you and me. Whatever makes you and me as a distinct personality is, accordingly, dubbed an impurity. To realize that my ātman = Brahman, must I shed all these individuating impurities? You betcha.
So, if you or I look around our world and see many things, ooops! If you think you’re one individual situated within a world where there are other individuals and other things, ooops! If your perception leads you to think dualistically—if you think that there’s you and then there’s everything that is not you—ooops! This signifies that you are living in ignorance. Or, more accurately, in distortion of the truth. Duality is delusion.
How can we realize the true truth? The pursuit of realizing the truth becomes the gnostic quest followed by Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and others in India’s Dharma tradition.
Liberation from the finite for absorption into the mystical infinite
Let’s try this again. We have a soul, ātman. But, arising within our soul is advidyā, which means “not-knowing” or “false knowing.” We get deceived by our senses and our perceptions and our thoughts. We mistakenly believe that reality is dual, multiple, manifold. The manifold of our physical world lays before us separate objects. And our soul, our ātman, begins to think of itself as separate, individuated, unrelated. This realm of distortion or delusion is called māyā.
Māyā is entangled with samsāra. Samsāra is the course of changing events that includes the wheel of rebirth. Living in the delusion of multiplicity with its law of cause-and-effect traps us in the cycle of death, rebirth, and death again. As we saw in a previous post, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains seek liberation from the wheel of rebirth.
The many are one
When true and complete knowledge (samyagdarśanam) dawns on us, we realize that all things are only one thing. The delusion of duality and multiplicity disappears. Our own individual identity disappears. At this ecstatic moment, our ātman realizes that it is Brahman and only Brahman. This realization brings peace, bliss.
This blissful form of knowledge is not what Westerners think of as objective or scientific knowledge. Ultimate reality is not an object that stands over against our subjectivity. No. The reality of Brahman becomes isomorphic with your and my consciousness. To put it another way, your and my self becomes absorbed without remainder into the mystical infinite.
Is God the ground of being?
Brahman is the ground of being. More precisely, it is Being-itself. In the Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1 we find:
सदेव सोम्येदमग्र आसीदेकमेवाद्वितीयम् । तद्धैक आहुरसदेवेदमग्र आसीदेकमेवाद्वितीयं तस्मादसतः सज्जायत ॥ ६.२.१ ॥
sadeva somyedamagra āsīdekamevādvitīyam | taddhaika āhurasadevedamagra āsīdekamevādvitīyaṃ tasmādasataḥ sajjāyata || 6.2.1 ||
Somya, before this world was manifest there was only existence, one without a second. On this subject, some maintain that before this world was manifest there was only non-existence, one without a second. Out of that non-existence, existence emerged.
A western philosopher would note that the existence of our cosmos is contingent. Non-existence is as possible as existence. Yet, we exist. Our cosmos exists. Our English verb, ‘to exist’, comes from the Greek ek plus stasis. It means to stand out from non-being. We stand out from non-being—we exist—apparently as separate, individual, plural. Is this reality? Or a delusion?
Being is one and one only. Being is without a second reality beside it. At bottom, there is only oneness. Thus speaketh the Chandogya. A century ago, German history of religions scholar, Rudolph Otto (1869-1937), commented on this Upanishadic passage.
“Now, this unity is Esse, is ‘that which is’, is Being itself….contained in the Indian word Sat” (Otto, 1932, p. 21).
Paul Tillich on Being-Itself
In the wake of Rudolf Otto, Christian theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) interchanged terms for ‘God’ and ‘Being-itself.” Does the following sound like the Chandogya Upanishad?
“The being of God is being-itself. The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others” (Tillich, 1951-1963, p. 1:235).
God is not one being among others, says Tillich. God does not exist in the sense of standing out as one individual being among others.
“God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him” (Tillich, 1951-1963, p. 1:235).
My former GTU colleague, the late Durwood Foster, was a Tillich expert. On one occasion, Durwood muttered: “Tillich is a Christianized Hindu.”
What was as important to Durwood as it was for Shankara is that the divine cannot be grasped objectively. Neither Brahman nor God are objects to be thought about. God as Being-itself is present to us prior to the split in our consciousness between subject and object. We can know God only retrospectively or intuitively. God comes prior to our subjectivity and objectivity. Knowing God truly requires absorption into the mystical infinite.
Yoga and Our Higher Self
We’re talking about the oceanic feeling. This is the mystical feeling that I am a droplet of water within an infinite ocean. In some instances, the oceanic experience befalls us unbidden. It suprises us. In other instances, we can expend effort and discipline to bring it about. That effort is called yoga.
Vivekananda (1863-1902), the founder of Vedanta Society, the American arm of the Indian Ramakrishna Movement, altered the metaphor slightly. Instead of a drop in the ocean, he described your or my self is an eddy or whirlpool within an ever-flowing stream.
“Just as in a rushing stream there may be millions of whirlpools, and the water in each of these whirlpools is fresh every moment, turning round and round for a few seconds, and then passing out at the other end, and fresh pan tides of water coming in, so this whole universe is one constantly changing mass of matter, in which we are little whirlpools” (Vivekananda, 1896, 1920, p. 34).
How might you or I come to realize the truth that we are “little whirlpools” within the “mass of water”? By practicing yoga. Yoga disciplines our body and mind so that our consciousness can realize truths that lie beyond ordinary consciousness.
“There is a still higher plane upon which the mind can work. It can go beyond consciousness. Just as unconscious work is beneath consciousness, so there is another work which is above consciousness, and which, also, is not accompanied with the feeling of egoism. The feeling of egoism is only on the middle plane. When the mind is above or below that line there is no feeling of ” I ” and yet the mind works. When the mind goes beyond this line of self-consciousness it is called Samadhi or super-consciousness. It is above consciousness.” (Vivekananda, 1896, 1920, pp. 73-74).
In Samadhi or super-consciousness, the split between subject and object is overcome. We realize the oneness of the whole of reality. We realize that in our soul we are at one with God.
“Think of the Golden One, the Almighty, the Intangible, He whose name is Om, the Inexpressible, surrounded with effulgent light. Meditate on that….Think of a space in your heart, and in the midst of that space think that a flame is burning. Think of that flame as your own soul, and inside that flame is another space, effulgent, and that is the Soul of your soul, God” (Vivekananda, 1896, 1920, p. 91).
Once the truth—the truth that our ātman = Brahman–is realized within samadhi, then we will be released from the wheel of rebirth. When we are absorbed into the mystical infinite, our reincarnations will cease. We will become eternal just as God is eternal.
The Vedanta of Deepak Chopra
In the wake of Shankara and Vivekananda, today’s Deepak Chopra scientizes and sells mind-body therapy in the West. No need to wait for your next incarnation! In this life, by following Dr. Chopra’s meditative and medicinal techniques, you can attain full realization. When we follow what is said in Chopa’s books, we can…
“..undergo a transformative process, which will result in an awakening of the body, mind, and spirit that will allow you to live in a state of open, free, creative, and blissful awareness twenty-four hours a day….meditation [is] a life-changing quest for higher consciousness and a more fulfilling existence.” Deepak Chopra website.
Chopra’s new book, Abundance: The Inner Path to Wealth, alerts us as Hindus and Buddhists do that our unfulfilled cravings lead to frustration and even suffering. Chopra, according a book blurb, “demonstrates how to work past self-generated feelings of limitation and fear and provides meditations to help you focus and direct your attention, energy, and intuition so you can experience stability, prosperity, insight, creativity, love, and true power” (Chopra, 2022). Now, I’d start yoga meditation immediately if I were confident it could deliver “stability, prosperity, insight, creativity, love, and true power.”
Chopra’s metaphysics claims that everything is consciousness and matter does not exist independently. What we experience as objects, sounds, bodies, and minds are only delusions that obscure pure consciousness. “Quantum healing” can banish illness, end aging, and overcome death, he says. He sprinkles his Vedanta with scientific terms such as epigentics, neuroplasticity, homeostasis, and quantum superposition. “Yet,” complains skeptic Susan Blackmore, Chopra “twists them to fit in with his extravagant claims”(Blackmore, 2023,52). Blackmore recommends viewing TSC (Toward a Science of Consciousness) 2022 Conference with her and Chopra.
There is a sublime beauty to the vision of Shankara and Vivekananda. Each of our souls has a built-in yearning for healing the rifts that divide us, for bonding with what transcends us, for uniting with all that is real. Even in Chopra’s corrupted prosperity gospel form, moksha and nirvana still beckon.
A Christ mysticism?
I once visited the Ashram of the Holy Trinity–also known as Saccidananda Ashram–then hosted by English Benedictine Bede Griffiths. It is located at Shantivanam in southern India. Bede taught me yogic meditation with the mantra, “Om Nama Christya.” I meditated on the name of Christ. Might there be a Christ mysticism? Yes, indeed.
Some Lutherans posit a Christ mysticism as the lynch pin in the doctrine of justification. Accordingly, the very being of Christ is present to the believer’s faith. It is Christ who is judged by God, not the sinner. Because Christ passes the judgment, the sinner is forgiven and declared just. The oneness between Christ and the person of faith provides the ontological ground for the justification of the sinner. The afterlife judgment we learned about from Plato, Zoroastrianism, and other ancient sources takes place in this life, in the moment of faith in Jesus Christ.
Here is Jordan Cooper’s translation of sections of David Hollaz’s (1648-1713) chapter on mystical union in his Examin Theologicum Acroamaticum.
“Mystical union is the application of grace, of the Triune God, out of a special love, in view of the merits of Christ, that is apprehended in true faith, wherein the one in a regenerate and justified state is consecrated as a temple, the presence of a substantial indwelling fulfills all of the fullness of his gifts, he works in a special meeting, as, the presence of a certain grace and future glory, in union with Christ and in the church, with sanctification, and eternal salvation.”
In the case of Christ mysticism, there is no loss of self in relation to the perichoresis of the divine Trinity. The mystical presence of Christ is something we enjoy both in this life and in the resurrection.
Where are we in our trek through afterlife options?
We’ve followed the path of the immortal soul through the cycle of rebirth all the way to moksha, to absroption into the mystical infinite. What’s left?
- The Denial of Death
- Naturalism: When yer dead yer dead!
- Astral Body? Ka? Or Angel?
- Third Day Afterlife
- Immortal Soul
- Near Death Experience
- Communication with the Dead
- Absorption into the Mystical Infinite
- Resurrection of the Body
All or Nothing?
Frankly, I’m skeptical about absorption into the mystical infinite for two reasons. First, absorption into the mystical infininte cannot distinguish between fulfillment and emptiness. Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha recognized the logical equivalence between fulfillment and emptiness. If Brahman constitutes the undifferentiated unity of all things, Buddha surmised, then Brahman would be the equivalent of nothingness–the equivalent of no-thing-ness. No subjects. No objects. Not even the consciousness of the absence of subjects and objects.
One could easily make the case that Buddhism and reductionist physicalism or naturalism –“when yer dead yer dead“– result in the same view of reality, differing only in their symbolic articulation.
For the Buddhist, true knowledge of ultimate reality requires the absence of individuality, personhood, selfhood. Ultimate reality is equivalent to the void, the empty, the nihil. And because this undifferentiated emptiness lies deeper than the distinction between the divine and the non-divine, Buddhists feel it necessary to deny ultimacy to any claims of divinity. Philosophical Buddhism tacitly if not overtly embraces atheism.
Here is the point: pure consciousness, it seems to me, would consist of lack of consciousness. Does this render the very concept of pure consciousness incoherent?
‘Conscousness-of’ versus Pure Consciousness
So, secondly, my skepticism has to do with understanding concsiousness. The Dharma tradition relies on the notion of pure consciousness. In light of what I just said above, I can’t imagine what pure consciousness would be for either the Hindu or the Buddhist.
In the Western phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and hermeneutical philosophers such as Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) and Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), consciousness is always consciousness-of. That is, in consciousness a subject intends an object. The subject of consciousness is already historically and linguistically formed so that one’s intentionality directed toward the object of consciousness is pre-structured, so to speak. It is pre-structured by a pre-understanding gained from one’s personal history plus the cultural history embedded in the language. If I grasp what samadhi entails, according to the Advaita or Vedanta view, the subject and object get dissolved in pure consciousness. Your or my individual pre-understanding gets obliterated. Extinguished. OK. I get that. But…
This is incompatible with the Husserlian maxim that consciousness is always consciousness-of . With Hussel in mind, therefore, I simply cannot grasp what pure consciousness in such a situation would look like.
Might I pose this question: whose consciousness is pure consciousness? Not yours. Not mine. God’s? No, because pure consciousness preceds the split between the divine and the non-divine. At least according to the Dharma scheme.
We must ask: could pure concsiousness without historicized self-orientation and without conceptual boundaries exist? Is pure consciousness a coherent concept? Narayananthe Srinavasan at the Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences in Allahabad, India, might concur with me that this pure consciousness is a problematic concept. “It is not clear whether such a state is possible given that intentionality is a critical property of mentality and consciousness in many theories of consciousness.”
It seems to me that eternal salvation must include the individual subject who enjoys fulfillment in harmony with others and harmony with all reality. Harmony is not the same as abosrption. Harmony implies partnership, relationship, community.
Jesus’ political symbol of the kingdom of God, for example, connotes a redeemed society in which individual selves enjoy harmony with one another and God. I would find this more fulfilling, I think, than the self-obliteration connoted in the metaphor of a droplet dissolving in the ocean.
I write this post while departing from Bali, Indonesia. My wife, Karen, and I have just concluded leading a two week cultural immersian tour in this paradisical island. What fascinates me is the two millennia long cultural history that synthesizes archaic animism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Siwi (Shiva) Hinduism. Worship in Bali’s 17,000 temples exhibits relatively little yearning for absorption into the mystical infinite. Rather, what dominates piety is making offerings to the various Hindu spirits and deities to insure a robust rice harvest and success in business.
Perhaps every post-axial spirituality must confront a rivalry between our attention to the mundane and our attention to the ultimate. The ultimate lies beyond. But our senses attend to only what is immediate.
Our yearning for absorption into the mystical infinite is a yearning for the ultimate of the ultimates, I think. Fulfillment of this yearning, I further think, implies that your self or my self gets to enjoy the realization that we are at one with the ultimate.
For Patheos, Ted Peters posts articles and notices in the field of Public Theology. He is a Lutheran pastor and emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, with Robert John Russell on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. His single volume systematic theology, God—The World’s Future, is now in the 3rd edition. He has also authored God as Trinity plus Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society as well as Sin Boldly: Justifying Faith for Fragile and Broken Souls. See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.
Watch for his new 2023 book, The Voice of Public Theology, to be published by ATF Press.
Notes Sat is the Sanskrit for terms such as being, essence, real, actual, true, good. We find it in the celebrated Hindu word, Satcitananda. Here cit means consciousness. And ananda means repose, peace, bliss. Satcitananda is therefore translated as ‘truth consciousness bliss’, or ‘reality consciousness bliss’, or ‘Existence Consciousness Bliss’.” Thus speaketh Wikipedia.
 The phrase, oceanic feeling, was apparently coined by Romain Rolland in a letter to Sigmund Freud in 1927. It refers to a sensation of eternity, a feeling of being one with the external world as a whole. Freud had described this feeling even if someone else coined the term, reports Wikipedia. Contemporary to Freud was William James, who averred that “these states of consciousness of ‘union’ form a perfectly definite class of experiences, of which the soul may occasionally partake, and which certain persons may live by in a deeper sense than they live by anything else with which they have acquaintance”(James, 118).
 Consciousness is central in the history of Indian philosophy. Characteristically, consciousness is prior to materiality. Famed Oxford cosmologist Roger Penrose grants that “whatever consciousness is, it must be beyond comptable physics”(Penrose, 2023, 40). After separating himself from any religious beliefs and identifying himself as an atheist, Penrose speculates that consciousness may be the key to discerning purpose in the universe. “I think the presence of consciousness…is not an accident”(Penrose, 2023, 41).
 A western alternative explanation–a non-reductionistic explanation–for human consciousness exists. It’s called emregent dualism. Here is Jonathan Kopel at the Texas Tech University Medical Health Sciences Center in an article to be published soon in Theology and Science.
“…emergent dualism, postulates that the conscious subject is an emergent entity, coming into being once the appropriate functional configuration of brain processes is in place. The core notion behind emergent dualism is that when certain pieces are put together and connected in a certain way, namely neurons, something new and unexpected might emerge — something we wouldn’t have predicted based on what we already knew about the elements. It emerges as a natural result of the atoms’ combination and interaction.”(Kopel, 2023).
I do not need to commit myself to emergent dualism to simply point out alternatives to the ontological priority of pure consciousness posited in the Hindu tradition.
Blackmore, Susan, 2023. “How Spiritual is Deepak Chopra! Skeptical Inquirer 47:2 (March/April 2023) 52-55.
Chopra, Deepak, 2022. Abundance: The Inner Path to Wealth. London: Rider.
James, W. (1901, 1928). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green and Company.
Kopel, Jonathan, 2023. “Near Death Experiences and Emergent Dualism.” Theology and Science 21:2.
Otto, R. (1932). Mysticism East and West. New York: Macmillan.
Penrose, Roger, 2023. “Cosmic Thoughts: Interview with Michael Brooks. New Scientist (Spring) 38-41.
Tillich, P. (1951-1963). Systematic Theology (1st ed.). 3 Volumes: Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Vivekananda. (1896, 1920). Raja Yoga. London: http://www.vivekananda.net/PDFBooks/RajaYoga1920.pdf.