Lest anyone be confused by some of the terms that will be used in this blog—which is about the concept of inexpressible knowledge as found in some eastern religions—but then, may be at least somewhat alien to the average reader, we need to take a moment to define them.
Ontology is simply the modern, more precise name for the branch of philosophy that used to be called metaphysics (meaning ‘after the physics’).
Brahma is the name of an important Hindu god representing the Ultimate Creator; we shall not be hearing from him again today.
A brahmin refers to someone who teaches—about Brahman; note the difference in the two spellings.
Brahman is the equivalent, very loosely speaking, of the Judeo-Christian ‘God’. Loosely because unlike the Judeo-Christian idea of God as most Christians are led to perceive it, Hinduism distinguishes sharply between ‘Brahman with attributes’, which Hindus call Saguna Brahman, and ‘Brahman without attributes’, or Nirguna Brahman; and the difference is huge.
For instance, as with God, Saguna Brahman may have such attributes as personhood, maleness, fatherhood, love, jealousy, anger, mercifulness, law-giver, judge, ruler of the spiritual world, and so forth.
But Nirguna Brahman—well, nothing more may be said. The name is merely useful for acknowledging that Brahman is ultimately unknowable—if even existent at all! And it’s those last five words that really drive the point home.
So now let’s talk about that term ‘existent’, or simple existence as an ontologist might ruminate about it.
Practical reasoning tells me that I exist; that is, I think of myself as being—and in fact, as a being: specifically, a human kind of being with a name, age, address, personal history, and so forth.
And since I see myself—again, practically speaking—as a certain kind of being, I’m implying that there’s more than one kind. But then reasoning on, I eventually find myself confronted with the fact that I and all the other ‘beings’ in the world—from tiny grains of sand to whole rocks, to mountains, rivers, trees, animals, people, my family, friends and neighbors, my children’s plastic toys, my electric tools, you name it—are either parts of Nature that differ only in composition, shape, and size; manipulations of Nature to invent things that in the end, will also differ only in composition, shape, and size; or in the case of living things, are different only in their genetic makeup; meaning that nothing in this world is a discrete being, or being unto itself; that ultimately, we’re all part of a single, well—what?
And here’s where we need to turn our famous superior human reasoning one hundred eighty degrees back upon itself and figure out just where that last word came from in this context. Because the notion of a ‘whatness’ about something only arises when you’re talking about two or more things; or to put it another way, we people give names to things only so that we might distinguish one from another for communication purposes.
Indeed, in a monolithic context, the question “What is it?” is little more than a child’s brain fart resulting from the fact that we humans, in our everyday world of multiplicity, are in the habit of giving things names and are now imagining, rather arrogantly, that this mysterious ‘thing’ too must have a name—or that we should at least be able to give it one.
But what if this Oneness that we now believe ourselves to be part of turns out to be just another brain fart?
Which calls to mind something from the writings of the twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. In I and Thou, published in 1923, he says that many people searching for the Ultimate One look out onto the darkness of their personal ignorance, see their own bright reflection, and are moved to address it as ‘Thou’.
And so, yes, it is just another brain fart; but now hang on to your hat, because we’re about to make the whole thing—the reflection, that is—disappear.
You see, our mind plays these little tricks on us. There’s this knot that we’re going to have to undo if we want to find out what we ultimately know—should we still want that, considering that just for a moment there, as we found yourself abruptly stripped of our habitual notion of a whatness about everything, you may have found yourself seized by some sudden hysteria, not unlike the feeling of suddenly finding yourself lost!
For just as our sense of whatness derives from a perception that something differs from something else—thus requiring some name, if only a simple THIS and THAT about things—so our sense of whereness too requires another: a discrete HERE and THERE with which to work, or to even make sense!
For instance, should you actually become lost—say, out in the woods—it wouldn’t be because you didn’t know where you were; you’d know exactly where you ‘were’—you just wouldn’t know where anything else was.
But then you might spot something familiar in the distance—and just like that, you’d feel this incredibly relieving sense of a whereness about yourself, simply because you’d know where you were in relation to something else.
Our sense of whereness requires this reference point, then—pick anything, as long as there really is one: something that when all is said and done, remains wholly, discretely objective in our experience and thus produces a notion of us at least being somewhere in relation to that. The word has no other meaning!
Of course, given our habitual mindset, it’s difficult not to assume that we have to exist somewhere—if only in some vast ‘outer space’.
But please: space is within the Universe that we’re trying to categorize here—not the other way around—if then at least leaving us no place in which to get lost!
And as for when we ultimately are—well, again, without diversity and its little NOW and THEN, how can there be a whenness? As with whereness, one needs that all important point of reference. One is so many years from one’s birth, from the next election—relative whenness is the only kind there is. While of course, what we call ‘time’ too is but part of the universe—not vice versa.
And now for the really big question: why do we exist?
But here, if we look for some reference point—say, as far as we might be able to see out there in that vast universe—we’ll soon find ourselves in trouble. For instance, pick some distant star; and now while concentrating on it, ask yourself, ‘What could my life possibly mean to that star?’
Because should you stare at it for very long in that vein, you’ll begin to feel weightless and dizzy, and soon a little nauseous—until after a few moments, you’ll probably figure out what you’re doing wrong: you’re posing the question wrong! The right way—should you just have to pose something—is to ask, ‘What can that star possibly mean to my life?’ Only then will things quickly get back to normal.
One’s ‘I-experience’, then, or simple sense of self, provides the only firm orientation or anchor in an otherwise overwhelming accumulation of sensory experience that one would helplessly call ‘the universe’. In short, you can’t objectify yourself and expect to remain sane—much less still able to reason; in the world of reason, one must always remain the subject, simply because it’s oneself that’s doing the reasoning!
And so one’s mind ultimately comes upon a place where reason, with all of its necessarily dualistic ontology, proves useless and ultimately forces one to think—oh indeed, ever so mythologically!—in terms of simply one’s ‘Universal Self’; and where the bottom line is that one is really free to exist howsoever one might wish—or as another philosopher whose name I now forget once put it, as long as one is willing to pay the price.
And precisely because we humans—with our sense of I as the only stabilizing point in all that we experience—can’t think, reason, or communicate without a second point to which we may refer, Nirguna Brahman is indeed inexpressible, unknowable, beyond words, hence ultimately ineffable.
Martin Buber understood that. Zen Buddhism understands it: how does that Zen koan go, What’s the sound of one hand clapping?
Which of course, still leaves—on the practical side of things, for those who are satisfied enough to remain there—Saguna Brahman.