Wonder

The answer this nondual Kashmiri Saiva Tantra gives is essentially panenthe- istic, so it does not discard the idea of transcendent self, but rather rewrites it. For this, the idea of wonder acts as a bridge between the numinosity of transcendence and the mundane materiality here. Wonder serves to act as a bridge between a transcendent sense of self and an embodied materiality. What, then, is wonder? Wonder calls forth awe and a transcendence of our mundane mental processes. For a Western context, wonder references two poles. On the one hand, an opening, the beginnings of philosophy, as for Plato and Socrates (Rubenstein 2008). On the other hand it also points for Aristotle to a degenerate sense of curiosity, a puzzle that must be solved and hence must ultimately spell its own demise (Bynum 1997). I focus here on the Sanskrit term camatkara, which does not have the dual meaning inherited from the Greek genealogy. Here, Plato’s idea of wonder resonates more closely to the term camatkara; camatkara does not evoke the sense of curiosity, but rather a kind of suspension of ordinary mental engagement. So, for our context, we may leave aside Aristotle’s conception of wonder in favor of Plato’s.

It may be fair to say that for both us today and for our medieval Kashmiris, wonder is, above all, a bodily experience, even if the experience of wonder often feels as though it is taking us out of our bodies. Wonder causes our ordinary mental rambling (vikalpa) to stop. The awe of wonder connects us to a kind of rapture that seems at least in part other-worldly. For these Kashmiri authors, the other-worldly feeling of wonder is not so much that it belongs to another world, but rather that it reminds us of an innate subjectivity that transcends our habitual subject-object distinctions. Wonder arises when one accesses the sense of self in its fullness. That is, wonder expands the sense of self beyond its ordinary limitations to connect it to the world in a juxtaposition that stops the ordinary operation of the mind. In his “Fifteen Verses on Awakening” Abhinavagupta tells us:

Knowledge of the principle of pure consciousness that manifests as one’s own freedom—this is the highest state, which cannot be surpassed. It arises when wonder (camatkara) blossoms through the feeling of the complete fullness of the “I” as the whole universe (visva). That, in fact, is liberation, enlightenment (moksa).11

This medieval Kashmiri, deeply schooled in meditation practices, proffers a psychological coding of wonder. Wonder is the link between the sense of self as subject and the multiplicity of the world. Wonder is certainly a state of mind, in this case a psychological awareness that transcends the human propensity toward mental classification of the world. The mind seems to stop, but it is not that the mind ceases, nor that objects merge into the self, but rather wonder suspends the mind’s capacity to dichotomize. In the experience of wonder, the two poles, world and self, mapped to object and subject, form a dizzy unity that does not collapse either pole. So wonder breaks our habitual pattern of dichotomous thinking with self in opposition to the world. In this capacity, it also works against a conception of self as transcendent and abstracted.

Indeed, the highest awareness for this Tantric philosophy understands the self as wrapped in the fullness of the world. We see this spelled out explicitly in the commentary that Ksemaraja, Abhinavagupta’s disciple, gives for the Vijnana Bhairava. He tells us that one’s true nature, which is Bhairava, “consists of the wonder of the fullness of the world, which contains the whole, in a nondual apprehension with nothing left out.”[1] [2] Here again we see the idea of wonder coupled with the apprehension of the world. Wonder works its magic precisely through not collapsing the self and world into a unity, precisely by not allowing the flight of the self up and out, away from the messy plurality of the world, isolated into a perfect and impenetrable solitude of self.

The root text here that Ksemaraja comments upon in the eleventh century is the Vijnana Bhairava, a key scriptural text for this Tantric tradition, likely composed in the seventh or early eighth century CE. The author of the Vijnana Bhairava is unknown and the text is considered scriptural revelation. The text outlines a series of 112 different techniques for tapping into this space of wonder, nearly all of them in relation to some sense of the external world. These include techniques like savoring and meditating on the joy that arises from the pleasure of eating and drinking, which brings about a divine bliss (Anonymous 1918, verse 72, p. 60-61). Another holds that if the practitioner imagines that the entire world is being burnt by the fire of the destruction of time and does not allow his or her mind to think of anything else, then such a person attains the highest state of humans (Anonymous 1918, verse 53, pp. 44-45). A third technique involves meditating on one’s state at the beginning or end of a sneeze, or in a state of terror, or sorrow, or in flight from a battlefield, or in a state of keen curiosity, or when very hungry or just feeling sated from food, then a person attains a divine meditative awareness (Anonymous 1918, verse 118, p. 102). The Vijnana Bhairava itself does not develop this theology of wonder; it takes the later exegesis of the tradition’s scholar-mystics, like Abhinavagupta, Utpal- adeva, and Ksemaraja, to spell out the logic of wonder as numinous container of self and world in a rapture of awareness that leaves behind the mind’s tendency to dichotomize into self and others.

To wrap up this discussion I will offer one other quote from Ksemaraja’s commentary on this text, which takes us back to the epigraph from Keats at the beginning of this chapter. This also speaks to a pressing question—how might one cultivate wonder as a meditative practice? The Vijnana Bhairava gestures in various places to adopting an introspective awareness while in the middle of engagement with the world. We also see in the Vijnana Bhairava the power of aesthetic appreciation to generate wonder. Commenting on verse 73, which instructs the yogi to meditate on a beautiful song, to be absorbed in it, Ksemaraja tells us that:

. . . through the function of the sense of hearing, one grasps the words of a song with the wonder generated in that. In this way, by seeing this exceedingly beautiful form, wonder arises. From that, one tastes and relishes (carvana, literally chewing) the sap of that sweetness and so on.[3]

Poetry and song, wrapped in a sensuous encounter that readily transcends the mental capacity to dichotomize, are especially potent in generating a sense of wonder. Beauty has a power to shift us out of our normal sense of subject and object. By bringing to bear an aesthetic concentration, a kind of metaphorical immersion in the sap of beauty, we tap into wonder, a wonder that intrinsically arises out of the materiality of the world.

In this sense, Keats’ reflection on melancholy points to a similar transformation of self that occurs even in dark moments of introspection. Joy has as its core a melancholy that overwhelms and transforms the soul. “None save him whose strenuous tongue / Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine . . " In this context our Kashmiri mystics tell us something similar: At the core of sensuous experience we find a portal into wonder, a wonder that transforms the self beyond its ordinary sense of limitation into a sense of the fullness of the “I" (pmnahambhava). The wonder that the aesthetic experience enables expresses itself as a melting and expansion of the heart. Abhinavagupta tells us:

When the rasa or flavor comes into one’s purview, then it is enjoyed. This enjoyment is differentiated from what is encountered through memory or direct experience. It is characterized by melting, expansion and opening [of the heart].[4]

The aesthetic experience, then, is especially productive of wonder; it is an enjoyment unlike ordinary experience, unlike memory or experience, anubhava, in general. It involves a melting and an opening of the heart and it is comparable to the state of the highest bliss, the supreme Brahman. In this context, we reach a conception of selfhood that does not isolate itself in a transcendent abstraction beyond the world, but rather one that embraces the world.

Personal Meditation Journey

This relates to an early experience I had at the very beginning of my decades-long journey into meditation. I was in my last year at college at the end of the semester, unconsciously struggling, no doubt, with anxiety about my future and displacing this anxiety into a host of other distant and tragic disaster scenarios as unwelcome futures for planet Earth and its inhabitants. I remember this part of my life and recognize in it the fascination of others today, some friends, some not, online-trollers following with a rabid and frozen compulsion the latest unfolding of Ebola, the spread of Fukushima radiation to the California coast, zombie apocalypse movies, my conspiracy-theorist friends' worries of GMO's taking over our food supply, chemtrails, our water fracked away, and an impending global climate change looming ominously, desperately grappling in the midst of this with the darkness of human nature . . . And projecting this anxiety onto the vast and distant reaches of the globe with a grandiosity and drama that only a young adult in his or her early twenties can pull off. So, beset with a deep sense of suffering in the world, I looked inward (it's hard not to think of that A. E. Housman poem, "When I Was One-and-Twenty", and makes one wonder, are we all inherently Buddhists in our early twenties?). At the time I was also reading a great deal of romantic poetry, Keats, Shelly, and Wordsworth, as well as the metaphysical poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Marvell. Certainly the mood of these poetic strands and certainly the combination of the memento-moribund metaphysicals with the emotionally high-flying romantics fueled an emotional tempest as I turned 21. Feeling a sense of despondency, I decided that if depression was emotional ground zero, then, in stoic fashion I would acclimate myself to this baseline and not swerve from depression. I memorized Keats' "Ode on Melancholy," reciting it over and over many times every day, determined to stay steadfast at least with an emotional low. So, I lived on canned tuna fish and carrots, easy food to keep for a stretch of time and cheap to boot, not leaving my room for weeks, and living the kind of resolve that only a 21-year-old can accomplish with a straight face, I embraced my depression. After about three weeks, though, something odd happened. Partly perhaps from the sonorousness of Keats dancing around my brain, and partly perhaps from the necessary stillness needed to maintain a mood of sadness, one morning I oddly woke up happy, ebullient, and, try as I might, unable to shift into despondency over my plight and the world's. From this I understood a sort of reverse of Keats' notion of melancholy at the heart of the essence of joy; rather joy, as the inner throb, the life at the heart of everything, even sadness. Some years later I came upon this idea in the writings of Utpaladeva and Abhinavagupta, the idea of cidanandaghana, a "dense mass of consciousness entangled with joy," as the underlying substratum of experience. In any case, the indelible etching of joy as the soul of even depression set me on a new course.

  • [1] “yadanuttarasamvittattvasya parijnanam visvaparipurnahambhavacamatkarollasena svasvatantryabhivyaktih sa eva moksah” (Jagaddhar 1947).
  • [2] “bharito’sesavisvabhedacamatkaramaya akarah svarUpam” (Anonymous 1918, p.12, line 268)
  • [3] Anonymous (1918), verse 73, p. 62: sravanendriyavrttya gitasabdagrahanam taccamatkaranam,evam atisundararupavaddarsanacamatkarah, tatha madhuradirasacarvanisvadah).
  • [4] Abhinavagupta, DhvanyalokaLocana 2.4; p. 83.
 
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