Which of the Ultimates is Ultimate
Originally published February 2014
We live at a time when all spiritual traditions and contemporary inner work schools are available to the interested seeker. Most teachings—maybe all—are available around the globe, largely due to advances in transportation and communication technologies. This presents both a unique opportunity and equally an exponential possibility for confusion. When we are new on a path or at the naïve state of a beginner, which can last for decades, we simply follow our path, assuming we have found the right or best teaching. It is usually helpful that we feel or believe we have found the right path, otherwise our motivation for practice can become diminished. We may even believe it is the best or most complete one, but in any case, we need to assume it is at least a good one.
However, many of us rest in the comfort of believing all spirituality and spiritual teachings lead to the same place and aspire to the same awakening. Few decades ago what was referred to as he Perennial Philosophy was in vogue. It is the view that all spiritual teachings are about the same truth and aspire to the same realization. They differ in approach or methodology, but ultimately they lead to the same place. This philosophical view has been mostly forgotten, basically discredited due to deeper studies and fuller immersion in the various paths. It is clear, within contemporary spiritual discourse and/or for the seasoned practitioner, that each tradition is unique; not only different in its approach and methodology, but holds a different metaphysical view and aspires towards its own perspective of spiritual completion.
Because of the plethora of spiritual teachings nowadays, one of the vexing questions that confront spiritual practitioners is what the true nature of reality is, what the ultimate or absolute truth is. The view of what the ultimate truth of reality is determines not only the territory of the path but also methodology and attitudes. So, is there really an ultimate truth to reality? And if there is, do all teachings agree on what it is, or at least agree but conceptualize it differently? The latter is the view of the perennial philosophy that has been discredited. Let’s take a tour around the spiritual universe to find out how much agreement and difference there is between the various spiritual teachings.
Eastern spiritual teachings
Indian / Hindu
Let’s start with the Eastern teachings, for they tend to conceptualize spiritual maturity as the realization of the ultimate truth. Western teachings might conceptualize ultimate truth but they do not necessarily view the spiritual quest as the realization of such ultimate or absolute truth. We’ll begin in India, where many of the major ancient traditions originated.
Most Indian teachings view reality to have an ultimate or final truth, and its realization is tantamount to enlightenment or final realization.
Advaita Vedanta, for instance, thinks of liberation as the realization of pure consciousness. Advaita Vedanta has many sub schools. Some believe this pure consciousness is Satchitananda, truth/being-consciousness/awareness-bliss/happiness, all facets of the same ultimate ground. Some think of it as Brahmen, a silent witness beyond the world and uninvolved with it. Most of these schools, such as that of Shankara, view the world as illusion or illusory, and the individual soul as a convenient fiction that the ultimate requires for it to experience enlightenment. But some schools of Vedanta, as that of Jnanadeva, think of the world not as an illusion, but as the expression of the love of the absolute. Some of the Vedantic schools view the ultimate as simply the act of perceiving, so it is not as static as Shankara or Atmananda had held. But even with the Vedantic schools that believe in pure consciousness or Brahmen as the ultimate, there are differences. Atmananda believes in pure consciousness that is the nature and ground of all things, a consciousness that never ceases. Nisargadatta Maharaj held the absolute as the source of awareness, a truth that does not reflect on itself, and that if it looks at itself it simply ceases being aware. Ramana Maharshi called the absolute the Self, as an unchanging peace and stillness. It is true there might be only small differences between these, but it is possible to recognize that they are experientially different, with a different feel, unique attitudes and various degrees of value and development of heart.
When we go to Kashimiri Shaivism, the absolute is Shiva, an unchanging static stillness. However, the world manifestation is due to its inseparability from Shakti, his eternal consort, that is the dynamic creative dimension that is constantly creating the world. Is Shiva the same as Brahmen? And are these the same as Satchitananda? Some will answer with the affirmative, but we need to study deeply and immerse ourselves in the practices of the respective traditions for us to experience reality and enlightenment as different and unique to each. The situation gets even more interesting when we get to the Krishnavites, who believe that Krishna is the ultimate, and even though his light is the ground of the universe—as in Satchitananda—he is ultimately a person, a divine personage whose beauty and radiance eclipses the majesty of Brahmen or the glory of Satchitananda.
The situation gets even more interesting when we move to Buddhism, which also originated in India. For Buddhism, the Hindu emphasis on Brahmen, Shiva or Satchitananda is delusionary, for they all assume an eternally existing and unchanging subtratum.
For Buddhism, the ultimate truth is Sunyata, the emptiness of inherent existence to anything.
So there is no inherently eternally existing substrate, whether it is consciousness or Brahman. So the Buddhists will tend to refer to the Hindu conceptions as eternalist, substantialist or essentialist. Many of their masters and philosophers, like the famous Nagarjuna, believed they refuted such metaphysical views, and that emptiness is the only assurance of a final enlightenment. However, the Buddhist themselves do not agree on the status of ultimate truth. The Theravada school posits it as anatma, the emptiness of individual self, and Mahayana as Sunyata, the emptiness of all phenomena. But even in Mahayana Buddhism, there is no agreement on what the ultimate or absolute truth is. There are basically two trends, with a debate that goes on till the present time, as we see it in the various Tibetan Vajrayana schools. There is the Rangtong school that posits emptiness itself as the ultimate, and the Shentong school that posits empty awareness as the ultimate. One might think that since for the Shentong school, as in the case of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, where the ultimate is the expanse of empty awareness, it is pretty close to the Rangtong view of emptiness as the ultimate. But in reality, the debate has not settled yet, and the schism in the Tibetan schools has had a rancorous history. The fact is that experientially they are different ways of knowing reality. When the ultimate is emptiness we see everything as characterized by the absence of inherent existence; as the absence of being, and everything simply manifests wedded to its emptiness. There is no ground besides the insight and perception that nothing exists in the conventional sense. It is an amazing and freeing awakening. But when we experience the ultimate as empty awareness, we are aware of an infinite expanse, radiant and transparent. Its radiance is the manifestation of all phenomena as the same appearance. So, there is a ground, whether called Dharmakaya or empty awareness. When emptiness is the ultimate there is really no ground, there is nothing that is, whether characterized by emptiness or not.
This is one reason that some of the followers of Rangtong Buddhism accuse Dzogchen as not being Buddhist, for it smacks of eternalism, similar to Vedanta. In fact, it is similar to some forms of Vedanta, the main distinguishing feature is the emphasis on emptiness, the awareness of which seen as necessary for enlightenment. Vedanta does not have this requirement even though some of its schools recognize emptiness as spaciousness; and Vedanta, as in the case of Ramana Maharshi, tends to think of Buddhism as nihilistic.
This is actually not the end of the differences within Buddhism. The difference between the Rangtong and Shentong orientation has to do with the view of Buddha nature, whether it is emptiness or empty awareness. But when we go to Zen, things start to sound even more different. For example, we have the well-known teaching of Dogen, the founder of the Japanese Soto Zen school, that Buddha nature is no other than impermanence. This is a profound difference from both Rangtong and Shentong, for it involves how Buddha nature combines time with timelessness, this way giving a view of time missing in other Buddhist schools.
Taoism also posits an ultimate, even though not as distinct as Buddhism or Vedanta. Tao is referred to as the way, and different schools of Taoism define it somewhat differently, with similarities and differences to Vedanta and Buddhism.
Western spiritual teachings
When we come to the West, most of mystical schools posit an ultimate truth. Kabbhala has Ein Sof, Christianity the father or the Trinity, and Sufism Allah or the divine essence. They tend to be similar in their metaphysical definition of the ultimate, but the similarity is mostly as that it is unknowable and beyond the world of phenomena. But there are significant differences as well. For Christian mysticism, to claim being the Father will be considered heresy, and for Kabbhala it is forbidden to even think of knowing Ein Sof, let alone realizing it. However, most of them do not equate spiritual maturity with the realization of such ultimate. They are united in viewing the spiritual goal as nearness to the ultimate, or sometimes union with it, that does not claim becoming it as the Eastern teachings tend to do. They differ in many ways from each other, each claiming to have the correct view of God or the ultimate.
Kabbhala & Christianity
For Kabbhala, realization is at best some glimpse of or nearness to kether, the first Safira, which is a limited manifestation out of Ein Sof. Some claim that the best that can happen is realization of Hochma, the second safira, and that full spiritual maturity and completion can only happen upon the final resurrection at the end of days. For Christian mysticism, salvation is union with the father, without that being realization of the father, and sometimes not even knowledge of the father, which is seen as fundamentally unknowable. For some, salvation is participation in the body of Christ, which is not the same as the Father or ultimate truth, even though not separate from it.
Sufism is also not a monolithic teaching, for it has many lineages with different metaphysics. Some, like the school of Ibn Arabi, allows for the realization of the Absolute, which is the divine essence. Yet, it is seen as mystery, and fundamentally unknowable. It is the source of the divine Being, the latter of which Ibn Arabi equates with Allah. Al-Jili is similar to Ibn Arabi, positing a divine essence, the truth of ahadiya, or unity, that is deeper than wahidiya, or oneness. The Sufis differ in their conceptualization of the path, not emphasizing the realization of the ultimate. They think of the path as the traversing of the stations of the path, and some of them view the final station being that of no station, no final abiding. Some also go as far as taking the view that there is no end to human completeness, as Nour Al Arabi held in Turkey.
The Sufis also differ in their orientation depending on how close they are to India. The Naqshabandis value the experience of the void, equating it with fana’ or extinction, for they originated in central Asia, near to the center of Buddhism. The Sufi lineages in India tend to integrate some Hindu or yogi metaphysics or another, but staying with Allah as the ultimate. So, some have the concept of Samadhi, alien to Western Sufism, as in Morocco or Syria.
Realization or Completeness
The Western view of the spiritual journey brings in the question of whether ultimate realization is always the realization of the ultimate. For Eastern teachings, it is, but for most Western teachings it is not. For both Kabbhala and Sufism, the ultimate realization is the complete human being, not the realization of the ultimate, while they differ somewhat on what the ultimate is and what a relation to it can be for the mystic, in order to reach completion. So our first question is: what is the completion of the spiritual journey, realizing of the ultimate or human completion, or something altogether different?
This last question takes us to the various shamanistic teachings. Even though most of them focus on physical and spiritual healing and shamanic journeying, many have a spiritual goal, and they have different goals. For instance, taking the view of Don Juan, assuming that Castenada was at least partly describing a real teaching and not only fiction, the aim is to escape extinction into an ultimate or absolute, referred to as the Eagle, and practicing to be able to retain one’s individual being while moving to its side. It is moving to the side we all go to after death, but as an integrated individual being and before physical death. This is just an example, and there are many others.