Unknowable yet known (Upanishads, Sufism, Ramana and Taoism)

sparrow branch

If you think: “I know Brahman well,” then surely you know but little of Its form
Kena Upanishad

One of the astounding things about this is that it is impossible to put this into words. Put what into words you may ask?….this! Just this! Call it Tao, God or call it Brahman – these are really just meaningless words unless we understand what the words are pointing to.

All the great teachings have tried to express the Inexpressible. They have tried to indicate That which gives meaning to life but is beyond meaning, That which is transformative but at the same time nothing changes when It is ‘realised’ (how can that be?), That in which suffering and separation are seen to be imaginary and illusory. When That is understood, all the scriptures can be made sense of, and all of the scriptures are also seen to be ultimately inaccurate.

The Tao Te Ching, that wonderful poem from ancient China, starts with the confession that what it is writing about cannot be written about:

The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao
Tao Te Ching, verse 1

What you are seeking is constantly being realised, whether you realise it or not! One of the advantages of the concept of God is that God is not meant to be knowable. However with the concept of self-realisation and the ever increasing preponderance of the all-knowing guru on the spiritual scene, it is often thought that this is something that can be known by the mind. Here’s what our Sufi friend Abol-Hasan has to say about it.

One may speak of those absent,
but one who is Ever Present,
one can say nothing of
Sheikh Abol-Hasan, saying 92

Throughout the ages, people from all walks of life have spontaneously awoken to this ‘understanding’: scholars and illiterates, men and women and children, those with a spiritual tradition and those without one.

All true knowers of truth are always fuzzy when it comes to how to realise this for oneself, for there is no single path and no single practice that has the monopoly here. This is not always a popular message, and certainly not one that is easy to grasp (it’s impossible to grasp) and pass on through the generations.

Here we can see the Kena Upanishad trying to express the futility of organising a spiritual system around this understanding:

The one who has thought it out does not know it.
It is not understood by those who understand it;
it is understood by those who do not understand it.
Kena Upanishad

This is ever present, it is none other than Our-True-Self, which is simply life devoid of the illusion of doership. It is here, yet cannot be known by the mind or senses. It cannot be captured in words.

I do not think I know It well, nor do I think I do not know It. 
He among us who knows the meaning of “Neither do I not know, nor do I know”
— knows Brahman.

Kena Upanishad

This realisation is nothing to be gained. When you realise, there is no realisation at all. It all just falls away. What is there to realise? Who is there to realise? There is just this. This is enough. Realisations come and go in this. And this is not a concrete thing that you can grasp or possess, but it is life just happening right now as it is.

Boddhidharma, the Indian monk and founder of Zen (Chan) Buddhism tells us just this, and he says it repeatedly – here is just one example:

“To say he attains anything at all is to slander a Buddha. What could he possibly attain?”
Boddhidharma from the Bloodstream Sermon

Ramana Maharshi was someone who had a spontaneous realisation of all of this as a teenage boy. He had no guru and knew little of any spiritual teaching. Over the years he learnt the language of Advaita Vedanta and found that its teachings described that which he was already experiencing. Here’s what he has to say about self-knowledge (Atma-Jnana in Sanskrit):

Q: When a man realises the Self, what will he see?

M: There is no seeing. Seeing is only being. The state of Self-realisation, as we call it, is not attaining something new or reaching some goal which is far away, but simply being that which you always are and which you always have been.

All that is needed is that you give up your realization of the not-true as true…At one stage you will laugh at yourself for trying to discover the Self which is so self-evident.
Ramana Maharshi

And he repeats this again and again (italics added by me):

If we talk of knowing the Self, there must be two selves, one a knowing self, another the self which is known, and the process of knowing.

The state we call realisation is simply being oneself, not knowing anything or becoming anything. If one has realised, one is that which alone is and which alone has always been. One cannot describe that state. One can only be that.
Ramana Maharshi

So if this is unknowable, how to reach this ‘understanding’ at all? Let us listen to the Maharshi:

Q: But how is one to reach this state?
M: There is no goal to be reached. There is nothing to be attained. You are the Self. You exist always. Nothing more can be predicated of the Self than that it exists. Seeing God or the Self is only being the Self or yourself. Seeing is being.

You, being the Self, want to know how to attain the Self. It is something like a man being at Ramanasramam asking how many ways there are to reach Ramanasramam and which is the best way for him.
Ramana Maharshi

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