The nature of awareness (Tantraloka 1 cont'd)

This post continues my translation of the Tantrāloka of Abhinavagupta, the encyclopedic overview of all things Tantrik, written at the very peak of the tradition's success (one thousand years ago). In this section of the text, Abhinava discusses the nature of Awareness as the ground of all being. He breaks down sentience & insentience, gradations of awareness, individuated awareness vs. overarching Awareness, what full realization entails, and refutes objective materialism, all in the course of just five Sanskrit verses!

In our system, no ritual injunction whatsoever, nor [Vedic] mantras, nor their ritual sphere [has anything directly to do with this higher reality that is Awareness]. | 134ab

With this elliptical statement (the bridge from the previous section of text), Abhinava rejects the belief, held by many Vaidikas and Tāntrikas of his time, that ritual can be instrumental to liberation—unless, as we will see later, it is performed as a nondual meditation. Even then, there is no great advantage to performing ritual, because virtually anything can be done as a nondual meditation (though it is the case that ritual uniquely engages all the senses and all the elements and thereby is seen as the best opportunity to practice the ‘unity of the factors of action’—see Tantra Illuminated pp. )

This very [Awareness], concealing itself, exists as the realm of the ‘insentient’; and simultaneously concealing and revealing itself, as that of conscious beings, from the gods to down to plants. The dual nature [of the One] as both sentient and insentient is wondrously diverse. || 134cd-135

All insentient things have the nature of Awareness because they manifest only within awareness, as an aspect of awareness (and any possible existence separate from awareness on their part is impossible to verify). But insentient things appear to most people as objects separate from awareness, confronting the subject from outside; so the nature of objects as Awareness is ‘concealed’. In reality, of course, there is no (verifiable) ‘outside’ to awareness—everything perceived by anyone is by definition internal to awareness.

By contrast, living beings are sentient—they all clearly possess some degree of awareness, but because those degrees are different—each species being aware of a very different umweltAbhinava speaks of Awareness being “simultaneously concealed and revealed” relative to the gradation of awareness that that being possesses, from plants and ticks up to humans and gods.

The fact that the One appears in these two aspects, sentient and insentient, poses no problem for this nondual philosophy, which after all is so named precisely because the One does indeed appear in two aspects.

For there is not anything whatsoever that the autonomy of this [Awareness] cannot imagine [and thereby manifest]. This is taught in the Triśirobhairava-tantra, which says that one who knows this [truth] is fully awakened (sambuddha). || 136

Awareness, free and independent, is capable of conceiving anything (over the course of infinite time), and whatever it conceives, it manifests, in worlds beyond number. Most of these infinite manifestations are forever inaccessible to finite beings living in a particular time and place, of course, as argued by the Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics. But nonetheless, one who directly senses the Absolute Potential of infinite Awareness, and the power of autonomy by which it can manifest anything within that field of Potential, is said to be fully awakened (his awakeness reaching all the way to the śāmbhava level). Abhinava attributes this teaching to the *Triśirobhairava-tantra, a scripture he holds in the highest regard, making it tragic that the text is now lost. However, it was not yet lost in the time of Abhinava’s commentator, Jayaratha, a Śrīvidyā adept who wrote in the 12th century. Jayaratha quotes the Triśirobhairava, trying to guess at the passage Abhinava had in mind:

“One of little awareness is tangled in the web of the Impurities; like an insect in a [spider’s] web, he plays & struggles in the cage of the body. But one of developed awareness is discerning . . . like a dancer, he reels with the various powers [of Consciousness], free of the mental-emotional states of the judgmental mind (buddhi), manifesting both [what he] wills and sublime peace.” ~ Triśirobhairava-tantra

The passage is beautiful and intriguing, but does not explicitly correspond to Abhinava’s teaching, since it does not mention the realization of the Power of Autonomy. Yet the verse reveals another teaching worth commenting briefly on: that a fully awakened being (samyag-buddha) is free of the petty desires, judgements, and machinations of the conditioned mind, yet can manifest whatever life wants to do through him or her through having full access to icchā-śakti. Such a being does not want anything Life does not want, so s/he also experiences sublime peace & tranquillity (kshema).

But let us return to Abhinava’s text again. We saw the claim above that above that whatever Awareness can imagine it can manifest (given enough time, anyway; but in this view time is itself an aspect of how Awareness manifests, not a limitation imposed on it). Abhinava clarifies that he holds an Consciousness-only view with his next statement, which denies so-called ‘objective reality’:

For the state of being an object of cognition is itself a property of Consciousness; and nothing can be hidden by its own shadow! || 136ef

We perceive no objects whatsoever that are independent of or separate from Awareness (note that I, following Abhinava, use ‘Awareness’ and ‘Consciousness’ interchangeably). Indeed, the state of being an object specifically means being an object of cognition, for no-one asserts the existence of an object uncognized by anyone; and the state of being an object of cognition is nothing but a property of consciousness, for only consciousness can cognize. “Nothing can be hidden by its own shadow” is a clever metaphorical way of saying that objectivity cannot be primary, since objects by definition are properties of the experience of conscious beings, and cannot be known or cognized (or even posited) without or apart from the Power of Consciousness that illuminates them in potential or manifest forms.

But how is this not solipsism? Because in this view, all individuated forms of Awareness, i.e. all embodied conscious beings, are expressions of a singular overarching Awareness, the ‘Mind of God’ as it were (only it’s not a mind, but more of a pattern—the Pattern of a self-aware universe). Here in this radically nondual view, God (or Shiva) is not a being or a person, but just a term to denote the overarching Awareness by the power of which all beings possess whatever degree of awareness they do. This is precisely what Abhinava clarifies in the next verse:

Therefore, the aspect [of Awareness] that is a sentient being, called ‘person’ or ‘contracted locus’ [in our scriptures], exists in manifold varieties within that aspect [of Awareness] that is unconcealed & unlimited. || 137

Meaning, simply, that there are countless different forms of conscious beings, all of them limited to one degree or another, but all expressing different aspects of the unlimited overarching Awareness. The latter is “unconcealed” because it is constantly revealed as the very Pattern of the universe (e.g., the laws of physics, the golden mean, the patterns of the biological world, of human language, the overlapping umvelts of conscious beings, etc. etc.).

Though there is no actual division within Consciousness, [which remains] eternally itself, even so, it is characterized [by apparent divisions or levels] due to the degree to which its [apparent] concealment is attenuated. || 138

That is to say, Consciousness appears to exist on different levels in the world of manifestation because of different relative degrees of concealment and revelation of the powers and capacities of Consciousness. This creates the illusion of division, of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ types of beings, though in fact they all are equally expressions of Awareness per se, because though they all cognize (and are cognized) in manifold ways and to various degrees, it is the fact that they do cognize (and are cognized) that is most fundamental to their very existence.

Abhinava now concludes this section with a cross-reference, one of many that demonstrate he must have revised the entire manuscript of the Tantrāloka once it was written:
We will speak of this at length in our examination of the Descent of Power
[in chapter 13], when we complete the [topic of] the highest-level reality and wish to discuss the topic of the world of surface-level appearances. || 139

Next: The Means to Realization (!)