Imagine a point.
And now describe it.
But give yourself a direct description of that point, without taking recourse to an analogy or anything around the point.
It’s a point in front of you? That’s a start but unfortunately that’s a description of its position, not of the point itself.
It’s a point surrounded by the room you’re sitting in? And that’s a description of what’s around it.
It’s very small? Now you’re finally attempting a direct description. But strictly speaking, a point is not the same as the dot you make on paper. It is not just small, it has no size whatsoever. So, while you’re on the right track, you’re not really there yet.
“Got it,” you say? “A point is not the space around it. It is not the air or the water or any substance it is in. It doesn’t have a shape or a size. In fact, it is a lack of everything else.” Well, you’re right. But the problem with that description is that it conjures up a lot of things in my mind which that point is not but it doesn’t describe to me what that point is.
“Ok then, the only way to describe it is that it has no attributes. It is emptiness, nothingness.” Seriously? You’re beginning to sound like a poet now. And very fashionably cryptic.
Difficult, isn’t it? Maybe we’re attempting the impossible because a point, by its very nature, cannot be described directly.
Welcome to the problem almost every saint and every enlightened person has had throughout human history. This thing that we call the absolute truth or enlightenment or the ultimate reality is a bit like that point you just tried to describe. And every enlightened person who attempts a direct and intellectually rigorous description of it finds it as difficult as you just did. They end up using analogies or vague language like you just did.
In fact, they have used words very similar to the ones you just thought of. Don’t believe me? Let me try and convince you.
“It’s very small,” you said of the point. One of the oldest texts to attempt a direct description of the absolute reality refers to its smallness too. It is a thumb sized man inside the man, the three thousand year old Katha Upanishad says. That, of course, is not as small as small can be. So just to clarify, the same Upanishad calls it “smaller than the small”. In other words, smaller than the smallest thing you can think of. (In the same verse it also calls it larger than the large but that’s a story for another day.)
What was next? “A point is not the space around it. It is not the air or the water or any substance it is in. It doesn’t have a shape or a size. In fact, it is a lack of everything else.” Roughly three millenia ago, the Brihandaranyaka Upanishad resorted to a similar series of negations to describe the true Self. “It is not what can be perceived, it is not what decays, it is not what feels pain… It is not this and it is not this either,” the ancient text says.
“It has no attributes. It is emptiness, nothingness,” you said. Coincidentally, Adi Shankaracharya and Gautama Buddha used somewhat similar words when describing the ultimate truth more than one and two millennia ago respectively. Adi Shankaracharya said it was niraakara (shapeless) and nirguna (without any attributes whatsoever) and Gautam Buddha said that it is shunyata, a word whose etymological root means zero and the word itself is translated as nothingness or voidness.
Those last two were probably the most analytically articulate men ever to write or speak on this subject. Which tells me that everyone has had trouble giving a precise and direct description of what enlightenment is. At the same time, they have all known by direct experience that it is the most unique, most fulfilling experience a person can ever have. An experience so rich that it just has to be described even when such a paucity of words does not do it justice.
So what did all the enlightened souls in human history do? They tried only so far to directly describe what enlightenment is. What they mostly described instead was how it made them feel and how it transformed their relationship with the world – with the people and the objects in it.
A common thread running through many of their descriptions is the empathy it made them feel with their fellow humans – not just the good but also the evil ones, not just with those who bore them goodwill but also those that did them harm. Two millennia ago Jesus preached brotherly love, so much so that even as he was undergoing a long and painful death, he wanted his tormentors forgiven and not punished. Six hundred years before him, Gautam Buddha wanted us to think, in very simple words, “As I am, so are these. As are these, so am I.”
All the realised souls of the past four thousand years have alluded to the fact that the core essence of every human being is nothing but this point devoid of everything we think of as substance. If that is true, then what of all the substance we have accumulated in our minds during the course of our lives? Is that all just irrelevant layers around our essence? Perhaps that is why people who have spent years absorbed in that essence realise that their attachments and their desires are all somewhat apocryphal. Hence the Buddha tells us again and again that everything we see, hear and feel is anichcha (impermanent). The Sufi poet Rumi implies that all the worldly substance we have embraced in our lives is counterfeit by simply stating that “There is an original inside me.”
A corollary of this impermanence is the concept of nishkam karm (desireless action). The Bhagavad Gita, in its second chapter exhorts us in no uncertain terms to undertake worldly efforts without getting attached to their fruits. A very difficult thing to do indeed. And yet, in the Dhammapada, the Buddha takes this to the next level, asking us to not just refrain from desiring the fruit of our actions but also to disown them when our actions do bear fruit. “Thinking that it was my doing is a fool’s way of thinking,” he says. “Your self-seeking and conceit only increase by thinking in that manner,” he tells his followers.
Another common thread which runs through the teachings of many enlightened people throughout history is their recommendation of humility as a desirable attribute. By most spiritual traditions, humility has been offered as the antithesis of pride, since “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Some, like Lao Tzu, take it to depths which seem infeasible – even unacceptable – in our lives, advocating what appears to be total lack of purposeful action. “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes,” Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching. “Don’t resist them… Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.”
Brotherly love, compassion, the impermanence of worldly desires, non-attachment, humility – these are just a few of the stances towards the world which spiritual literature lists out. There’s also acceptance, mindfulness, non-duality and several others which we haven’t mentioned. It’s hard to understand how a concept, which is so monolithic and so undifferentiated that it cannot even be described, can also stand for all of these very different things. How does a unity utterly devoid of all describable things suddenly get explained in so many diverse and unrelated ways, often by the very same people who described it as a formless nothing?
Well, this change happened because they stopped describing that unity and started describing traits of their personality. Sure, these are their innermost stances towards the world, the most core tenets of their lives. This layer of their personality just one degree removed from that unity they are experiencing, but it is still their personality consisting of mental stances.
And why so many different stances? Well, let’s go back to our analogy of the point. If that unity is a point which we cannot describe in any helpful or understandable way, then let’s imagine a sphere around that point. A very small sphere, perhaps just a centimeter or two in diameter. Surely, an insignificant size compared to the cosmic nature of the matter under discussion. But even that small sphere is enough to give us a substance which we can describe.
It is still the same point, but now we’re not looking directly at it. Instead we are looking at a surface which is very close to it, which doesn’t fully obscure the point and yet reflects its surroundings. So when we look at it from one angle, we see reflected in the sphere the world as seen from that angle. And when we look at it from another direction, we see the aspect of the world seen from that direction. It is the same enlightenment which directs every interaction an enlightened person has with the world but, depending upon the situation, it shows up as compassion, humility, non-attachment, acceptance or any of the other desirable qualities which we haven’t even listed.