The Fire Within

Recognition Sutra #14

With Chapter Fourteen of The Recognition SutrasKshemarāja gives us a brief but important summary of his understanding of embodied consciousness: as already discussed in Sūtra Ten and Sūtra Eleven, even the most un-self-aware human still exhibits the nature of consciousness, and therefore anyone can begin this journey from precisely where they are, by starting to reflect on the nature of their experience. 

Kshemarāja frames Sūtra Fourteen as a response to a possible objection raised against his teaching (note the importance of critical thinking and dialogue in this tradition!):

“Surely, if the essence of the ultimately significant and desirable state of the Power of Awareness is its capacity to ‘devour’ all kinds [of things], then it must do so even on the level of Māyā, just as the sun retains its capacity to illuminate things even when it is obscured by clouds.”

Here, Kshema describes the state of full access to the Power of Awareness as pāramārthika, a difficult-to-translate word that simultaneously expresses three concepts in English: ‘absolutely real’, ‘ultimately significant’, and ‘the highest goal’. The imagined objectioner correctly states that since this divine Awareness is the ever-present power by which any of us are aware of anything whatsoever, it should exhibit its capacity to 'devour' (absorb) all objects of consciousness, even when the contracted mind that perceives duality is dominant. Kshema responds that indeed it does, to some extent.

To address this concern, it is taught:

चितिवह्निरवरोहपदे छन्नोऽपि मात्रया मेयेन्धनं प्लुष्यति  ॥१४॥

The ‘Fire’ of Awareness, though obscured in its descended state, still partially consumes the ‘kindling’ of knowable objects.

The “descended state” in question is that described in Chapter Five, that is, the everyday contracted mind-state. The Power of Awareness, here usefully compared to fire, displays part of its fundamental character through ‘consuming’ the objects of consciousness.
    To explain: when one inquires, in contemplative meditation (bhāvanā), into the question of where thoughts, sensations, and other percepts go when they disappear or subside, one sees that they dissolve into the space of Awareness itself. Prior to actualizing spiritual liberation, however, this dissolution is not total, since, as already explained in Chapter Eleven, experiences tend to leave a subtle trace called a saṃskāra or vāsanā in Sanskrit.

Kshemarāja explains his own sūtra thusly (note that the parenthetical material is also his words, not my additions):

Awareness itself is a ‘fire’ in that its characteristic behavior is to devour all things. That same Awareness, though obscured (i.e., though its true nature is concealed out of its own freedom) in its descended state (i.e., on the level of one who perceives primarily in terms of duality), like glowing embers covered with ash it still consumes (i.e., makes one with itself) the ‘kindling’ of knowable objects (like ‘blue’ or ‘pleasure’), [though only] partially. The point of the word ‘partially’ is this: though swallowing [them], it does not devour them entirely. Rather, it deposits a portion as a subtle impression (saṃskāra).  

Again Kshemarāja wishes to clearly distinguish the Śaiva view of the self from that of the Vedāntins and Sānkhyas, who describe it as a passive witness, standing apart from and unaffected by what it witnesses. In the Śaiva view, the essential self is an experiencer and an absorber, sympathetically vibrating with the energy of whatever it experiences and digesting that energy, though often incompletely. This is a necessary corollary of a view in which the core self is not ultimately divisible from the mental-emotional body, though not everything that pertains to one pertains to the other. For example, the essential self remains unmarked and untainted by whatever one experiences, whereas the mental-emotional body (puryaṣṭaka) stores traces of those experiences—with the strength of those impressions being in direct proportion to how incompletely they were digested at the time of the experience. Due to identification with the mental-emotional body, it might seem as if severe trauma damages a person to the core; but if, through spiritual practice, that person is able to access the deepest place within, they experience for themselves that there is a part of them as unscarred and open, as pristine and clear, as loving and forgiving, as the most innocent child. And that 'part' is the most fundamental and truest aspect of one's being.

The fact that all knowers are absorbers can be demonstrated simply through one’s own experience.

To say that Awareness is a ‘devourer’ is to say that it is that space in which all experienced things converge, and in which all experiences are dissolved and ultimately resolved. Since all beings exhibit that capacity at least partially, we know that all beings are forms of that same divine Consciousness which has the capacity to 'devour' all things.

Kshemarāja concludes this chapter by quoting his teacher's teacher's teacher:

As our revered master Utpala Deva sang in his hymns (Śiva-stotrāvalī 20.17):

All creatures, even [the gods] Brahmā, Indra, and Viṣṇu, are continuously devouring: therefore, O Playful One, I worship the universe made of You. ||

The last phrase could also be translated “I venerate everything as You,” or “I worship the universe [because it is] full of you.” Utpala’s hymns beautifully demonstrate how a liberated being’s experience can include devotion and reverence even though he is a radical nondualist: he loved to praise and honor the Divine, even though he didn’t experience any separation or difference between himself and God. His hymns have been translated in a book published by Constantina Rhodes Bailly.

I'm excited to reach this point in the series of blog posts on The Recognition Sutras, because Sūtras Fifteen through Twenty are extraordinarily powerful. From this point forward, Kshemarāja’s discourse is like a snowball rolling down a mountain, gaining speed and size until it finally reaches the limit of its journey and explodes in a dazzling climax. In Chapters Fifteen and Sixteen, he explains where we’re headed (already hinted at in Thirteen); then in Seventeen, Eighteen, and Nineteen, he tells us how to get there; and in Twenty, he gives a fascinating description of ‘there’: that is, fully awakened and liberated Awareness harmoniously integrated with the body-mind and the entire world.

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This post is an excerpt from Chapter Fourteen of my book, The Recognition Sutras

For the online course to accompany the book, go to The Sutra Project

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Image: Magma Bloom by Anyzamarah of DeviantArt