This is a guest post by my friend Matthew Wright!
The 9th century Hindu philosopher Shankaracharya is famous for his pithy three statement summation of the teachings of Advaita Vedanta: The world is illusion. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world. We might compare the traditional three movements of the Christian mystical path: purgation, illumination, and union. Likewise, the Islamic shahada, or affirmation of faith (La ilaha illallah Muhammadan rasulullah), as understood by the mystics of Islam, moves through three similar stages: La ilaha (“There is no god”), the negation of the world of idolatry and separation;illallah (“only God”), the affirmation that Divine Reality alone is; Muhammadan rasulullah(“Muhammad is the messenger of God”), the affirmation that the world is not other than Divine Reality. This final insight is not different in essence from the Zen Buddhist realization that “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It could also be seen as the deepest meaning of the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation (in St. Athanasius’ words, that “God became humanity that humanity might become God”) or the koan of a Christ who is both fully God and fully human.
 Muhammad is understood here not only as the Arabian prophet, but as the Nur Muhammad, the Light of Prophecy that shines through all prophets, both the essential name of the whole creation and the fullness of perfected humanity (as a hadith qudsi says: “If not for you, O Muhammad, I would not have created the worlds.”).
Some “nondual” teachers, however, seem to stop short of Shankara’s final affirmation: Brahman is the world. Especially in Hindu tradition, the message can seem to be simply the world is illusion(Sufism’s la ilaha and Christianity’s purgation), with the ultimate goal of moksha, or escape (this is not only the fault of the tradition, but is due, to some extent, to the lack of nuance—and simple misrepresentation—on the part of Western scholars). While we must go further, this insight is nevertheless a significant and necessary one, bringing disillusionment with the world around us and an awakening to the impulses and drives that we have been in unconscious obedience to. We begin to see the web of attachments that has made us selfish and self-centered, separating us from God and from others. We see that practically all of our relationships and actions are tainted with subtle (or not so subtle) traces of egoism. At this stage, we may begin to experience the world and its forms with a sense of disdain or even disgust, seen as so many traps and entanglements. Dissatisfied, we turn to God (i.e., away from idolatry and convention).
Now begins the work of seeing and cutting through the attachments that veil us from naked Reality. Classically, the Advaita Vedanta tradition has formulated this work in terms of “discrimination” (viveka), expressed through the phrase “neti, neti“, “not this, not this”—discerning and negating everything that is not God (that is, everything separating or egoic, temporal or finite). God is the all-embracing and eternal Reality; anything that is not That, is not God. This begins the awakening to Brahman alone is real (or illallah and illumination), our encounter with the “oneness” just beneath the surface of ordinary experience. We touch the unchanging peace, stillness, and love that is our essence. Thrilled to have made the discovery of “what’s real”, we reject the surface and affirm the depth. We retreat to the Eternal.
For a truly nondual spiritual vision, however, we must make Shankara’s final leap, and affirm what Christian language might call radical Incarnation: Brahman is the world. But before arriving there, I want to look at some possible pitfalls along the way. As stated above, one serious error (we might even say spiritual pathology), is ending the spiritual journey at Shankara’s first or second statements, which at their worst can produce the kind of world-denying, dualistic Gnosticism that plagued the 2nd and 3rd century Christian church (or simply a disengaged quietism). But another, and perhaps more dangerous error in the context of contemporary culture, is attempting to start at the third statement (“Brahman is the world”). It is tempting to jump to this final insight from the get-go, but then it is held only as an intellectual concept, not a realization. As a realization, we begin to actually live from this truth, acting differently (that is, less egoically) in the world around us; as an intellectual concept, it is merely words, however lofty and seemingly beautiful. However uncomfortable, we are first required to pass through the necessary stage of negation (in Jesus’ words, “the eye of the needle” and “the narrow way”).
I give this point special emphasis, as there is a tendency in liberal Western Christianity (and Western spirituality in general), because of our history of negative attitudes towards sex and the body, to overcompensate with talk of “incarnational spirituality” and Ginsbergian shouts of “Everything is holy!” As a corrective to a pervasive negativity, this has its place (and at its best can be an authentic insight into Christianity’s nondual core). In the context of spiritual work, however, it is extremely important to recognize what level of realization we are speaking from when we make such claims. The purified ego can truly recognize the inherent holiness of everything, but a person operating from a lower level of consciousness development will happily (and probably quite unconsciously) use such claims to justify any manner of behaviors, under the guise of “It’s all holy” (perhaps most clearly seen on the level of egoic sexual expression).
Advaita Vedanta, Sufism, and mystical traditions in general, put great emphasis on the place of detachment and renunciation in spiritual life—words that are not generally favored in our contemporary spiritual climate, as they are often heard as world- or life-denying. What is being renounced or detached from, however, is egoism and clinging, which lead to a contracted and selfish life. Renunciation, in its fullest sense, expands life. “Incarnational spirituality”, on the other hand, is too often an excuse for spiritual laziness and a way of baptizing our impulses towards egoic experience (“God’s in everything, it’s all holy!”).
We see this attitude expressed in phrases such as “My life is my prayer.” Indeed, to live a life of prayer is the end goal of all spiritual activity—that we would enter into St. Paul’s “prayer without ceasing.” But this is the end goal, not the starting point. Only the great saints can truly say “My life is my prayer”, because they are always in remembrance of God, seeing only that One Face. Most of us are simply striving towards that state, and to claim it prematurely may actually serve to inhibit our spiritual progress. A more honest statement would probably be: “Sometimes, when I’m lucky, my life is my prayer.” To truly awaken into a greater and more constant state of prayer, disciplined practice (sadhana) is needed. There is little instant gratification on the spiritual path (until we see that it’s all instant gratification), although the work can be joyful. Certainly, in the end, life itself will bring us all of the lessons that we need, and practices and awakening will come as we’re ready. But now is always the moment that we can begin the work of letting go.
With these dangers set aside, the final circling back (or rather, spiraling forward) to Brahman is the world (or Muhammadan rasulullah and union) is the full expression of the nondual vision of Reality. We neither remain in the negation of the world, nor the simple affirmation of God. Having negated all that is impermanent, and having experienced and affirmed the Eternal, we now come to see everything previously negated in new light. All is the manifestation of Divine Reality. Everything that had veiled us from God is now seen to be simply the expression of God. There is only Kali dancing on Shiva, the Divine Attributes dancing in the Divine Essence, Shakti and Brahman, the Relative and the Absolute, a single Reality. There is only Christ, incarnate, crucified, and ascended; judge, savior, and saved. There is nowhere to go, nothing to escape, only God; perfect freedom, total service, One Face.
The world is illusion. Brahman alone is real. Brahman is the world. La ilaha illallah Muhammadan rasulullah. God became humanity that humanity might become God.
Matthew Wright is studying for ordination in the Episcopal Church at Virginia Theological Seminary. He is also a student of Sufism and Vedanta, working to further religious reconciliation through interspiritual dialogue and contemplative practice. He currently serves as an intern at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC.
Mike’s recommended nondual reading:
Other posts in the Nondual Week series:
Radical Incarnation: Thoughts on Nondual Spirituality by Matthew Wright
Nondual Week: Ken Wilber on ‘One Taste’
Nondual Week: Panentheism & Interspirituality – What’s Jesus Got to do With It?
Nondual Week: Panentheism – Perichoresis – Christology: Participatory Divinity
Nondual Week: David Henson on ‘How Hinduism Saved My Christian Faith’