Emptiness and God – By Elizabeth West

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It has been my intention to write some reflections on this subject for a long time. The idea that Reality is non-dual is often spoken of as the perennial philosophy. It is also the experience of mystics of all traditions and now scientists are beginning to talk in the same way. However the problem is of course that nonduality is in itself a concept and therefore cannot be Reality itself which, all traditions agree, is beyond concepts. This is what makes it such a difficult subject to write or talk about.

Difficult as it may be, it is the unity, the Truth that can be seen and experienced at the heart of every tradition. It is also feared by any religious leaders who like to control their followers, because realising non-duality gives those who have even a glimpse of it a sense of inner certainty that frees them from the need to conform to the dictates of a belief system.

In looking through my books for something to help me reflect on this subject I returned after many years to Ken Wilbur’s book “The Spectrum of Consciousness”[1] and in particular I was drawn to the section entitled: ‘Time/Eternity, Space/Infinity’. As Ken Wilbur is someone who is difficult to summarise because he tends to be summarising almost everything that has been written on a subject, I have decided to quote him at some length. This is not easy material, but it seems to me one of the clearest expositions on this subject I have ever read. Ken writes: “Reality is a level of consciousness, that of non-dual Mind, containing concepts yet never grasped by them. Because it is free from conceptual elaboration, it can be partially described in any number of nalogical or negative ways, but fully described in no way whatsoever. Thus the Dharmadhatu, the Tao, the Godhead, Brahman, the Void – all are attempts to convey Reality as it is, yathabhutam, in its ‘isness’, its suchness (thathata), and not as it is labelled; as it is experienced in its purity after the ‘doors of perception have been cleansed’ of all intellectual fabrications, and not as it is reported and distorted by symbolic thought processes.

Now in speaking of Reality as non-dual consciousness, most of us conjure up ideas of consciousness as somehow being connected with subjectivity. That is, we feel consciousness belongs not to ‘objects’ such as this page. This is, of course, dualistic to the core. But since consciousness is Reality, and Reality is actually non-dual, it would be much more accurate to view consciousness not as relative subject confronting objects but as Absolute Subjectivity above the dualism of subject vs object. Consciousness, as Absolute Subjectivity, belongs exclusively to neither subject or object, but embraces both. In this sense Absolute Reality is Absolute Subjectivity. The theologian Berdyaev explains:

Spirit is never an object; nor is spiritual reality an objective one. In the so-called objective world there is no such nature, thing, or objective reality as spirit. God is spirit because he is not object, because he IS subject … In objectification there are no primal realities, but only symbols. The objective spirit is merely a symbolism of spirit. Spirit (Absolute Subject) is realistic while culture and social life are symbolical. In the object there is never any reality, but only the symbol of reality. The subject alone has reality.[2]

This Absolute Subjectivity is not the ego subject, as in the dualism subject vs object. It is called Subject only because it hints that Reality lies in what now appears to be the direction that we call inward, subjective, towards the very centre of our being, a centre so deep and profound that it is God’s centre as well, we realize that it contains no dualisms at all, either that of subject vs object or inward vs outward. Here is the marriage of heaven and hell, and dualistic language fails us – “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.”

On the threshold of the most profound and ultimate depths we are faced with the revelation that our experiece is contained within the depths of Divine Life itself. But at this point silence reigns, for no human language or concept can express this experience. That is the apophatic sphere of irreconcilable contradictions baffling human thought. That is the ultimate realm of free and purified spirituality, which no monistic system is capable of defining. On this side there remain dualism, tragedy, conflict, man’s dialogue with God, the plural world confronted with the One. It is not by discarding the principle of personality that the absolute Divine One can be attained, but rather by exploring the spiritual depths of the personality which is antinimically united to the One.[3]

It is for this reason that Tillich suggested we take the word God to mean “depth”, and this “depth” is exactly that Absolute Subjectivity or witness within each of us, identified with neither subject or object, but paradoxically including both. Sri Ramana Maharshi puts it thus

Since the Self, which is pure Consciousness, cognises everything, it is the Ultimate Seer (Absolute Subjectivity). All the rest: ego, mind, body, etc are merely its objects; so each one of them except the Self or pure Consciousness is a merely externalised object and cannot be the true Seer. Since the Self cannot be objectified, not being cognised by anything else, the subject-object relation and the apparent subjectivity of the Self exist only on the plane of of relativity and vanish in the absolute. There is in truth no other than the Self, which is neither the seer nor the seen, and is not involved as subject or object.[4]

This is an extremely important point, a point we will return to again and again, for it forms a most critical link in our perpetual generation of dualism whereby “man stands in his own shadow and wonders why it is dark.” Every individual habitually feels that his ego, his self, is the subject of his experiences, feelings and thoughts, that his subjective self in some way perceives the external world, that his subjective self is now reading the words on this page. And this he expresses by saying “I am aware of myself reading”. But the fact that something in me can look at the subjective self, that is, the fact there exists in me right now an awareness of me, “self” reading this page, should show me clearly that my supposedly subjective self is really an object of awareness! It is not a real subject at all, for it can be perceived objectively. Now just what is it “in” me that is aware of myself reading this page? We have seen in connection with the Yogacara, that it cannot be simply another “subjective” self, for what is then aware of that self – another self? No – but what is it in me that is doing the looking? It cannot be my subjective ego-self that is doing the looking, for that can be looked at, and as Huang Po stated “Let me remind you that the perceived cannot perceive ,” that, in other words me, “self”, since it can be perceived, cannot be that which is perceiving. But what is that within me which is perceiving? “There is within oneself that which knows…” says Hui Heng, but what is it? Zen Master Bassui asks:

My body’s like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind looking into itself is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?

He then proceeds to suggest an answer:

To know this subject you must right here and now probe deeply into yourself, inquiring. “What is it that thinks in terms of good and bad, that sees, that hears?” If you question yourself profoundly in this wise, you will surely enlighten yourself. If you enlighten yourself you are instantly a Buddha. The Mind which the Buddhas realized in their enlightenment is the Mind of all sentient beings… This Mind, like space, is all-embracing. It does not come into existence with the creation of our body, nor does it perish with its disintegration. Though invisible, it suffuses our body, and every single act of seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, or moving the hands and legs is simply the activity of this Mind.[5]

This is probably enough of Ken Wilbur to digest in one go. I can imagine many of you thinking ‘If Reality is beyond words, why is so much ink spilt writing about it?’ In one sense it does seem pointless. On the other hand, and I think this is the reason really behind much of eastern philosophy, we need to be constantly reminded that what we think of as reality is, in the light of this teaching, not real at all, but an intellectual fabrication, built up to support the idea of a real ‘me’ a me that I can grasp and feel secure within. Much of the Philosophy in Buddhism, and particularly that of Madhyamika is aimed at exploding this myth. However we can simply enjoy the word games and never get any closer to exploding the myth. No one thing alone explodes the myth of our false reality for most of us, we have to work on a number of levels. But without the conviction that all symbolic reality (see Berdyaev) is unreal in the end, we are unlikely to walk the path. As Christians we tend to need also to explode the myth that we know, or can ever know in the ordinary sense of knowing, what God is. In this sense we have to really take Meister Eckhart seriously, when he says “I pray God to rid me of God”. Letting go of all we think we know about God, about ourselves and about our world, is a very demanding task. Yet we have to move step by step along this path in order to become truly spiritually strong and free. Even a mental conviction that Non-Duality is true helps us to become free of too much clinging to ideas and beliefs because we begin to be aware that after all they are not the real thing.

Part II

The first part of this article in the previous newsletter focussed on non-duality, not-self and emptiness, this time it will be more focussed on God, Self and fullness, without I hope moving away from non-duality. Since my visit to de Quelle mentioned above I have been thinking a lot about ‘God’ in my life. One of the things I think I have been experiencing recently is a kind of homesickness for God. I know that this will resonate with the experience of others. This is not to say that God is not behind much of the teachings of Buddhism, especially Dzogchen, but that there is no mention of God. It is in many Buddhist circles almost a dirty word, representing a caricature, which really has little to with the real thing. While all the time we are recognising that concepts are not the real thing either. Lack of any mention of God leaves a kind of void, or so I have found. Moving back into an environment with a background of Vedanta brought back the use of words such as God and Lord etc to the forefront. This shows that, while we are living in the realm of duality, concepts can be important provided we relate to them correctly. Of course along with the concept of God come the concepts of worship, adoration, surrender etc. Balancing these two paradigms in our lives is perhaps what this network is about. When quoting from the articles my comments and additions are in italics.

Recently I came upon an article on the Integral Institute website, by Terry Patten, focusing on what Ken Wilbur calls “The three faces of Spirit” (perhaps the words Spirit and Divine are words for God that could be more acceptable in both paradigms.) Of this article Ken Wilbur writes; “Spirit can be approached in first-, second-, or third-person perspectives. These perspectives can be thought of as ways that we approach the Ultimate, as well as dimensions of the Ultimate as it first manifests. Using Vedanta as an example, there is nirguna Brahman, which is the ultimate without any qualities whatsoever, including that one, and hence beyond conceptualisation as well (e.g. Emptiness, Dharmakaya, Radical Godhead) and there is saguna Brahman, or the Ultimate as it begins to manifest in the world of Form. SO as soon as the Ultimate manifests in the world of Form, the very first exists in quadrants, the big three, I Thou and It. So we can approach the Ultimate as I (e.g. IAMness, Jesus’ I Am, I and the Father are one), Thou (The Presence of God, A Loving God, The Beloved), and It (Cosmic contemplation, God in nature, The Web of Life, The Great Perfection of this and every moment.) This article is a short contemplation focusing on these three perspectives. We hope you enjoy this affirmation of all three Faces of God which are also ultimately three dimensions of our own being: Consciousness/Awareness, Love/Gratitude, Wonder/Bliss.” There are clearly many Trinitarian reflections to be drawn from this. Now I will just give a taster from each aspect of worship taken from the article.

The following are excerpts from the article by Terry Patten:-

God in 3rd Person Meditation

1. The Physical Body of God

This whole life, beautiful and terrible, full of logic and meaning, and utterly beyond knowing is what human beings point to when they use words like ‘Divinity’ and ‘God’. God thus understood, is both transcendent and immanent – utterly beyond any experience, and simultaneously implicit and present in every shred of experience, and every particle of amazing physical cosmos, gross, subtle and causal.

God can be found in the physical world – in the sky, the sun, the moon, the starts, the clouds. God can be seen and felt in the grass, the trees, the earth and the wind. God is audible in bird and animal songs, and is visible in the eyes and bodies of all our fellow creatures – as well as in all our fellow human beings and all we do, our creativity and beautiful artistic expression, our science and industry, our stupidity and brutality, our trivial entertainment and our most profound creations and utterances. …

2. The Subtle Energy Bodies of God

Divinity is visible not just in the physicality of our world, but the energy body of God. All natural processes and all living things are visibly suffused with moving life-energy. ….

Divinity expressed itself as Light. We can consciously participate in it. We can open ourselves and feel and breathe and conduct the force of Life, the Light, the subtle energy, the Holy Spirit. We can breath the Holy Spirit in, down the front of the body and we can feel this Divinity descending down as fullness of life, and vitality and presence. Then we can feel it turn at the base of the body and ascend up through the spine as we exhale, rising up to and into and even above the head where we can feel it as Radiant Light and Blissful Freedom. Those familiar with yoga will recognise this as an interpretation of yoga, the chakras and the energy channels.

3. The Perfectly Still and Silent Causal Body of God

But there is another vast dimension to God’s body, not the gross physical body and not even the energy body. The causal body of God is that which is unmoving, unbroken and eternal. All the conditions of our human lives come and go, just as we are born and die, but God survives, unimpaired, undiminished, unblinking, undistracted, undying, uncompromising and absolute. God is the One who is not born and does not die, does not age or change. God is the Ultimate Reality, the Ultimate subject behind every conditional experience, the Self behind every conditioned self, the I AM behind every I, the very Self of every being and all existence. (Reminds me of the saying of the Buddha, “There is the unborn, the undying and the uncreated!”)

God in 2nd Person Meditation

It is a profound and paradoxical matter to turn and face the Unfathomable Mystery of Existence. How is it possible? How can you face the Ultimate, Conscious, Unlimited, Almighty and Omnipresent?

Communion is to open the whole body, into communion with the Universal Mystery of Existence as one’s most intimate Beloved. It involves unkinking the physical body, freeing the feeling breath, opening the emotions and turning them towards the Beloved. Even if you’ve never considered it before, your relationship with God must be one of Love. After All God is Love. What does it mean to open to a personal meeting with Love itself, the very Heart that expresses itself in your heart and every heart? ….

This God who is Love is Incomprehensible. God is not just what we can relate to, but is inherently more vast, more uncompromising, more fierce, more enormous than mere words can say. … Can you bring yourself to face and open yourself to intimacy with the most unimaginably huge, perfectly still Presence? What would it require, what would it feel like to stop averting your gaze from that One? ….

Let your defences soften and your whole being open into sacred communion with the Divine Totality, with your deepest intimacy, your Beloved, right here and now.

God in 1st Person Meditation

We can awaken directly as Spirit through various practices of formless meditation, or the experience of communion can deepen so much that all boundaries between you and God dissolve. … You are all of it. But more fundamentally, the you behind the skin-encapsulated ego, the I behind the I, is the Awareness in which it all arises. The space in which the body-mind arises, the space in which the big bang arises …”

Here ends Terry Paten.

So here we are again back where we began in a way. Of course to totally experience this Oneness radical non-attachment, especially from me and mine is required, but also from our images of God. I would say an Absolute detachment, which most people only realize in death, and possibly only after many deaths! However we can all have glimpses of this unity. Not only radical non-attachment, but also radical humility is required lest we misguidedly identify this experience with our ego. Surely this is a trap that even some very aware people can fall into. I suspect that this is why the Eastern traditions stress the need for a teacher when making this journey and also possibly why the Monotheistic Religions tend not to talk about it at all, and in the rare cases that mystics have, condemnation has usually been their lot.


[1] Ken Wilbur, The Spectrum of Consciousness, Quest Books, 1977,1993.

[2] Nicholas Berdyaev. Spirit and Reality, (New York:1939), pp5,53.Cf.

[3] Ibid pp 198-199

[4] Arthur Osborn, The Collected Works of Rmana Maharshi (London 1959), p25

[5] Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965), p. 162