The Dialectic of Paradox and Knowledge
School of Philosophy, Spring Symposium
21 November 2010,
Tourists to Greece are sometimes led through a grove of trees just outside a monastery on one of the hills surrounding Athens. The play of light among the tress and stones is magnificent and seems to explain the brilliance of Greek thought, its order and reasonableness. Greek culture seems to be the outcome of Athenian light. Indeed, the interplay of the trio – the one, the true, the good to which is added the beautiful – is hallmarks of Greek culture.
Students would not be introduced into Plato’s ‘academy’ – the grove of olive trees – to explore divine ideas unless they had first studied geometry and ‘measured the earth’. Only then would they truly know themselves, gnôthi seauton.
But Kashmir Shaivism, a school of Indian thought rediscovered last century and now acknowledged as one of the great schools of Indian thought, proposes just the opposite. The place of enlightenment is the cremation ground, in the depth of night, at the darkest time of the lunar month, where, seated on a corpse among the funeral pyres, in a place of horror and terror where jackals roam and hurl: this is the place where truth is found, where knowledge is achieved, and the highest bliss. It is the place of ultimate dialectic, where truth is found in horror, disjunction, in paradox.
Paradox, faced with unintelligible dualism, leads to a crisis that cannot be resolved unless new faculties are brought into play. One realises that one had lived in the world of ideas and reactions, and therefore of shadows. One realises the need to go beyond laws into an uncontrolled domain. The intellect presumes that all is intelligible, but if there are other faculties at work, then not all needs to be made intelligible in order to arrive at knowledge.
The tantric practitioners of Kashmir eschew the logic, the clarity of ideas, and the whole Greek thing. Tantra seeks to go beyond all the faculties, and to achieve a state beyond mind (unmanas). None of the faculties will do. Reason, the five senses, mathematics, all the usual ways by which this world is known, are considered inadequate and partial. There is a higher knowledge that is attained only by entering into contradiction. It is precisely in the mixture of good and evil, pleasure and pain, beauty and horror, sin and grace, that the tantrika goes beyond all limitations and arrives at ultimate knowledge, which is found only in paradox. The Greek mind sought order; the Kashmir Shaiva mind does not. It seeks to surpass the categories of good and evil, truth and lie, which are mental constructs.
Thus the meditator reaches universal consciousness, and rests there. This is not easy, and the person needs to become completely detached from both aversion and desire. Every ambition has to cease. It is the ultimate purification.
Having arrived at the transmental, the practitioner may stay there or may not. There may be a reverse movement, which goes through various stages. The first stage, the basis of all the others, is simply the ‘Word’ (vāc), which surpasses all words and is found in them all. It is the underlying reality, like the oil which is found everywhere in the sesame seed. It is like the mirror which of itself does not contain any image and therefore is capable of reflecting every image. The tarnished mirror, which has a colouring, is unable accurately to portray on its surface. The next stage, a process of exteriorisation, is the moment of insight. It is a lessening of the universal word, of universal consciousness, where the meditator becomes has ‘this insight’ rather than ‘that insight’. The mind then moves on to the next stage where the person tries to articulate the insight but cannot find the words. It is an inarticulate state. The fourth and final stage is that of articulate speech, which communicates the insight but is not adequate to it, just as the insight is not adequate to the universal word.
The ultimate knowledge is expressed in truths. Of course, the truth statements are inadequate and partial: more so for some, less so for those who have the gift of a clear mind and articulate langue. Yet, if the listener is perceptive, he or she will catch on to the insight which is at the basis of the words and sentences. They will then see the primordial Word which is only partially expressed. The hearer must hear the words, poor though they are, so as to arrive by the power of suggestion at the insight and the ultimate Word from which they spring. This happens by ‘resonance’ (dhvani), the power of suggestion, which is the essence of poetry.
This thought from Kashmir fits in with the particular philosophy which I espouse. For Christianity is essentially a religion of paradox. In this sense it is essentially tantric. It is by experiencing paradox that the Christian arrives at the ultimate truth.
Christianity teaches that Jesus is essentially paradoxical. He has known good and evil, sin and grace, pain and pleasure, life and death, heaven and hell. All these contradictions he knows in himself, and has experienced them. In this way he comes to the ultimate truth. In fact because he is already pure, like the untarnished mirror, he is able to experience all these contradictions. Only heaven and descend into hell. He comes to himself in his experience of paradox.
He is not an idea, but Truth itself. This is shown in the dramatic scene where Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, questions Jesus. It is brilliant example of Johannine irony. In response to Jesus’ statement: “All those on the side of truth listen to my voice”, Pilate retorts, “Truth, what is that”. He is quite unable to see that he is in the presence of Truth. He asks the wrong question, ‘What is truth?’ and should have asked ‘Who is Truth’. But even then he would not have been able to see the one who is Truth.
In keeping with this teaching, only those who allow themselves to become immersed in paradox and follow the same path as Jesus will come to their truth, will in fact become truth. It is only in the dialectic of paradox, that the person can come to the ultimate truth, the ultimate knowledge.
This has implications for inter-religious dialogue. The question is to allow the diversity of views to affect us, for only when there is a diversity of views can there be paradox. This does not mean that we immerse ourselves in gobbledygook. Reason and logic, correct observation, the work of all the faculties must be brought into play. Questioning, research and experimentation must all have their place. But at the same time, there must be a readiness to acknowledge that all these things, well articulated thought they may be, do not of themselves lead to the ultimate knowledge.
In our meeting we see each other, but can only do so if we have clarity of mind, and clarity of mind in turn comes only with peacefulness of heart. Then we can see each other and see deep into the diversity and perceive the one Word which links us all together. Our very diversity is necessary if we are to see truly.