You are the universe: Recognition Sutra #4
One thousand years ago, in the valley of Kashmīr, the great Tantrik master Rājānaka Kshemarāja wrote his masterpiece: The Recognition Sutras (Pratyabhijñā-hrdaya). The last four posts on Tantrik Studies have been about this amazing, ahead-of-its time Sanskrit text. Now we turn to the fourth of the twenty 'threads' (sūtras) that anchor the text, encountering a teaching frequently paraphrased in modern yoga circles, though usually in a watered-down form. So let's go to the source! Kshemarāja writes (everything in bold, not just the sūtra):
Just as God has the whole universe for his body, in the same way,
चितिसंकोचात्मा चेतनोऽपि संकुचितविश्वमयः || ४
The individual conscious being,
as a contraction of universal Awareness,
embodies the entire universe in a contracted form.
In the same way that Divine Consciousness has the entire universe for its body, the individual conscious being (cetana) too, i.e. the knowing subject, as a contraction of universal Awareness (citi), is a microcosm of the whole universe, like the seed of a banyan tree [encodes the pattern of the whole tree].
Here we get a clear statement of the primary thesis of Chapter Four of The Recognition Sutras, which expresses what might be called the “holographic” vision of reality in nondual Tantra. If you have a piece of real holographic film, when you shine a laser on it, you see a three-dimensional image. If the film records the image of a toy truck, say, then if you cut the piece of film in half and shine a laser on each half, what do you see? Not two halves of a truck, but two complete smaller toy trucks. This is because the information of the image is a pattern encoded everywhere on the film. Thus, something can be said to be “holographic” when the pattern of the whole is contained in each of its parts in a smaller iteration (we see this phenomenon of 'self-similarity' in fractals as well). When Kṣhemarāja tells us that each individual conscious being embodies the entire universe in a contracted form, he is telling us that each part contains the pattern of the whole. He managed to explain holographic information encoding nearly a thousand years before it existed.
Though he did not have the perfect analogy of a hologram or a fractal, he is clearly groping in that direction when he cites the example of the seed of the banyan tree. The banyan fig tree is the largest tree in the world; a single tree can cover many acres due to its unique aerial roots that become supplementary trunks. The seeds inside its fruit are very tiny, and yet from that tiny seed, a vast tree can grow, because (as we now know) each seed contains the DNA pattern of the whole. Indian philosophers long intuited the existence of DNA, grokking that all the information necessary to produce the tree must somehow exist within the seed, in a tightly packed form. In Kṣhema’s formulation, then, just as each of our cells contain the DNA that describes our whole body-mind, our body-mind is like a “cell” of the whole universe, containing its entire pattern in contracted form.
Okay, now having explained the model of reality being presented here, what are the real-world implications? They are considerable. First, there is no state that can be (or has been) experienced by anyone in history that you cannot experience in this very body. It is literally all within you, and should you choose to plumb the depths of your being, you will directly know that that is true—without having to actually experience the entire range of possibilities. On the spiritual path, everyone discovers sooner or later that the sense they have of themselves, who and what they think they are, is grossly limited and small compared to the reality of the vastness of their being. The capacity to be the holiest of saints and the most heartless of killers exists within each of us. You may have heard this before, but take a moment to actually feel the truth of it within yourself. Such a feeling inspires us to embrace our own greatness on the one hand, yet also gives us greater compassion for the wicked on the other hand—for we know that “there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
When you can really feel the full range of human possibility within yourself, it also gives rise to reverent wonder at the manifestation of the unique selection of that range called “me”—a selection that is never static, but ever-new and ever-changing, if we let it be. A sense of humbled awe arises when you realize that of all the things God could have chosen, She has chosen to become you—and chooses it again, afresh, now, and each moment. For the Tantrika, or any awakened being, there really is no greater joy than simply seeing which part of the infinite pattern will manifest next. “What will God do—and be—through me today?”, spoken with a soft smile, roughly approximates this experience.
Tantra teaches that all the sacred sites, all the places of pilgrimage, and all the deities are within. In fact, the Tāntrikas went so far as to map the sacred sites of India onto the human body, implying that anything you can experience by travelling the world and visiting the most special of places can be experienced within. As beautiful as this world can be, the inner landscape is just as varied and just as beautiful. This can be hard for many people to believe, because what you experience when you first turn within is usually just the spinning of your own mind, or else boring nothingness. But if you are patient, just around the time you’ve given up on seeing anything, a subtle depth starts to open up, a vastness pregnant with presence, and in that vastness, little by little, the true nature of reality starts to be revealed—but usually not when you’re specifically looking for it.
Kshemarāja goes on to say:
This is the point: though a limited perceiver, because you are one with the Light of Awareness, you must be entirely of one nature with all-embodying Shiva. You [merely] appear as if contracted, because your essential nature is not [yet] manifest, due to the power of His māyā [by which differentiation appears ultimately real]. And upon contemplating that [state of limitation or] contraction, we realize that even it is nothing but Awareness, because it can only exist as an aspect of Awareness; otherwise it would be nothing whatever. Thus every perceiver is nothing but the all-embodying Lord Shiva himself (i.e., God).
Here Kshemarāja hits a kind of crescendo in his argument in Chapter Four. “You must be entirely of one nature with all-embodying Shiva” could also be literally translated “you can’t be anything but a form of the One, the Being whose body is the whole universe.” (viśva-śarīra-śivaika-rūpa eva kevalam) Furthermore, Kshema tells us, contraction is but an appearance, not ultimately real. This does not belittle the sometimes painful reality of contraction, because in the Recognition philosophy, anything can be named an “appearance” (ābhāsa) insofar as it is, in reality, a shining of the One Light that merely temporarily appears as a distinct separate object or feeling. The Power called māyā-śakti is, in this system, the power of creative diversification by which things appear to have separate, individual, independent existence. But contraction falls away when your essential nature (svabhāva) becomes fully manifest, meaning you can experience the expansive state of your own divinity even in the midst of those states others would call contracted. For even contraction itself is nothing but a form of Awareness; that which is not a form of Awareness cannot be said to exist, as we have seen. Therefore, in this system, there is no demonizing of contraction; it is part of the One Light, and every conscious being, in whatever state of mind, is none other than Lord Shiva, He who embodies all things. Some are Lord Shiva in his divine state of concealment, others are Lord Shiva in his equally divine state of self-revelation.
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This post is an excerpt from Chapter Four of my forthcoming book: The Recognition Sutras, Mattamayūra Press, 2017.
For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project
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Disclaimer: I would like to add photo credits, but I don't know where these photos come from. If you do, let me know.