The New Year has brought me quite a lot of surprising e-mail, but the following missive wins the surprise prize. (Since Dr. Sudduth has sent his open letter to numerous correspondents, and has posted it on his Facebook page, I feel entitled to post it here in its entirety without his explicit permission.) Comments later, perhaps. A fascinating document.
Over lunch Friday the topic of moksha (release or liberation from samsara; enlightenment) came up in the context of Advaita Vedanta. Moksha is attained when the identity of Atman and Brahman is realized. My interlocutor wanted to know how such realization is possible. If I realize my identity with the Absolute, then I cease to exist as something separate from the Absolute. In that case, however, there is nothing left to realize anything. How could the state of enlightenment be anything for me if there is no 'me' left after enlightenment? How is moksha different from deep dreamless sleep or from utter nonexistence? A form of salvation that amounts to personal annihilation seems not to be a salvation worth wanting.
Any soteriology worth its salt must answer three questions: Salvation of what? To what? From what? Brahman does not need salvation. It is this indigent samsaric entity that I take myself to be that needs salvation. But if what is saved is destroyed in being saved, by being merged into Brahman, then it is at best paradoxical to call this salvation.
Ramanuja is supposed to have said to Shankara, "I don't want to be sugar; I want to taste sugar."
If I were taking Shankara's side of the argument, I might say something like the following to Ramanuja and my friend:
If I am right and you really are sugar/Brahman in your innermost essence, and you merely taste it, then you are removed from it and haven't yet attained the goal. It is just one more object over against you as subject. Your inquiry into the self, into who or what you really are, has not yet come to an end. The goal is to realize or become aware of your true self. To do that you must ruthlessly disengage from everything that is not-self. If Brahman is your true self, and you realize your identity with it, then you haven't lost your self, but found your self. You cannot be said to dissolve into the ocean of Brahman if Brahman is the true you. To think that you you lose your self when you merge with Brahman presupposes a false identification of the self with something finite. The self you lose is merely an object that you have wrongly identified as your true self; the self you gain is your true self.
This response is not quite satisfactory. Consider the following aporetic triad:
1. Brahman does not need salvation. 2. I am Brahman. 3. My need for salvation is a real (not merely a samsaric, illusory) need.
The first two limbs are parts of the doctrine (Advaita Vedanta) that is the context of our soteriological discussion. So they are nonnegotiable unless we shift out of this context. But (3) also seems true. The three propositions cannot, however, all be true: the conjunction of the first two limbs entails the negation of the third.
So it looks as if the advaitin has to bite the bullet and reject (3). He has to say something like: the very need for release from this hell of an existence itself belongs to maya, the realm of illusion. So both the need for moksha and the one who seeks it are illusory. But this seems to conflict with the starting point of this whole soteriological scheme, namely, that the suffering and unsatisfactoriness of this life are real.
Here is another puzzle.
Using the method of Neti, Neti (not this, not this), we end up with the result that the subject who is seeking is no object, no thing, nothing. Pursuing the question: Who or what am I? I come to the insight that I cannot be identical to any object, whether my car, my house, my clothes, my curriculum vitae, my body, any part of my body, my memories, thoughts, feelings, etc. Any and all objects -- inner, outer, concrete, abstract -- are to be disengaged from the subject for whom they are objects. The upshot seems to be that any self or subject so disengaged from every object is nothing at all.
On the other hand, I cannot be nothing at all since I am pursuing this investigation. Coming to realize that I am not this, that, or the other thing, I must be something, not nothing. So we bang into a logical contradiction: I am nothing and I am not nothing.
As long as we remain on the discursive/dualistic plane we will get tangled up like this. So one could take these insolubilia as pointing us beyond the discursive intellect. This is what I suggested to my friend. I want him to take up meditation so as to explore the non-dual source of duality. But meditation is insanely hard, and the fruits are few and far between. It can seem like an utter waste of time. Pointless navel-gazing! (But see my plea for omphaloscopy .)
Besides, one can take the insolubilia -- if insolubilia they are -- as referring us, not into the transdiscursive, but back into Plato's Cave, in particular, into that especially dark corner wherein the Wittgensteinian therapists ply their trade.