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"The Reply of Plotinus"

- the debate continues -

   By Peter Holleran

  "The gradation of the One, the One-Many [Nous],
   and the One and Many [Soul] is eternally fixed,
   and is an expression of reality."

      - Plotinus

I: Nice to chat with you again.

ND: Good to see you, too.

I: How's Goo-Goo Eyes?

ND: Don't ask.

I: O.K. Sorry.

After some consideration I want you to know that I think that some of the confusion in our earlier debate may have come not only from ourselves (and the paradoxical nature of reality) but from our study of Plotinus itself. In trying to point us towards his unique vision he left us with two possible interpretations of his philosophy. On the one hand, in the Enneads III, 8, 1-4, he elaborates a view of a descending series of diminishing hypostases in which the visible universe is the terminal product (from the One, to Nous, to Soul, to Nature, to the sensible cosmos or matter), but in two treatises "On the Omnipresence of Being," according to John Deck, he argues that there is nothing in between matter and the ideas, that is, between the sensible cosmos and the Nous. In other words, in one place he firmly argues for the Soul and Nature as distinct hypostases [Nature as a further, diminished hypostasis from Soul - which we didn't mention earlier in our discussion], and in another seems to imply that irregardless, they are, in fact, unnecessary. This is what much of our entire debate has been about. Deck summarizes:

"If there is truly a downward degradation of being, thought, and poietic strength from Nous to the higher part of the World-Soul to nature, the teaching of Ennead III, 8, satisfactorily represents this position. The visible cosmos is nature's product of contemplation. If, on the other hand, there is a direct presence of Nous to matter, so that matter is "formed" immediately by its contact with true being, the visible cosmos is, it would seem, a direct product of Nous, and intermediation by soul and nature, the "logizing" of matter through these bearers of intellectuality, is unnecessary. The whole doctrine of soul and nature would be besides the point, and, if not opposed to the doctrine of the omnipresence of being, then only a metaphorical expression of it." (1)

Based on this I assume you will no doubt assert that having anything to do with the Soul or Nature or any levels between Nous and the world we know is inconsequential as far as enlightenment is concerned.

ND: Correct. In fact, Meister Eckhart said: “Our being here is our eternal being. Many people imagine here to have creaturely being, and divine being to be yonder. It is a popular delusion.”

I: I agree that our being here is our eternal being, but our being there is also our divine being, and maybe even more so. In any case, Deck concludes that Plotinus, while not clearly delineating his position regarding these two apparent dichotomous views, nevertheless does not waiver from his argument that Soul IS a distinct and eternal hypostasis, which we are intimately related with, and you can't get around it so easily. Deck calls it:

"the emissary of the Nous, the vehicle...of the logoi (the principles of intellectuality), which effect the presence of Nous in all things, even in the things of nature, formed as they are by this lower part of the World-Soul....The gradation of the One, the One-Many [Nous], and the One and Many [Soul] is eternally fixed, and is an expression of reality." (2)

ND: Clear seeing or prajna cuts right through the cosmos directly to the Nous. So bye, bye soul. This kind of thing, by the way, is not new but has been argued for hundreds if not thousands of years. Centuries ago Zen Master Foyan (1067-1120) bemoaned:

"Nowadays people only work on concentration power and do not open the eye of insight." (3) 

I: Sant Kirpal Singh said, “what you see is you”; he also told me, “God is nothing!” To an advanced disciple who had been to a high inner plane, yet still asked, “Who am I?”, he responded, “who is asking?” Very non-dualistic, non-mystical statements, from a very accomplished mystic.. Similarly, Rumi and Kabir talked non-duality, but also spirituality, devotion, meditation. So there must be some smoke behind this fire. The Sufis, Sikhs, and for that matter, the Christian mystics, were not ignorant fools. Now we have guys who are only concerned with getting rid of “psychological suffering,” which is certainly legitimate, but is it the last word on philosophy and the quest?

ND: Just realize what Meister Eckhardt called “the primordial ground where distinction never gazed.” No need to go anywhere or do anything to find that.

I: Great, but how come so many are enamored of quotes like that but shy away from other ones like these - also from Eckhardt: ”The horse that will bear us quickest to perfection is suffering” and "I tell you that no one can experience the birth of God realized in the soul without a mighty effort. No one attains this birth unless he withdraws his mind entirely from things"? Such teachers then often say things like “your suffering and problems are all bull---t, there is no suffering, there are no problems, and no one to suffer “ - Q.E.D., Finis, or to quote Yul Brynner as Ramses II from The Ten Commandments,"So let it be written, so let it be done!" Even the Buddha didn’t go that far. In the Vissudhimagga it is written, “suffering there is, but no one to suffer” - a denial of a self-existing separate self, yes, but not a denial of suffering. In fact, the "higher realizations" mentioned in that text were mostly earned sufferings given to practitioners at various stages of awakening to deal with harsh karmas needing purification. Please don't split hairs on the distinction between pain and suffering. That's another one of those debates with a long, long history.

ND: Very few are ready for the ultimate arguments.

I: Very true, but ready? How do we get ready? [And I thought we were already realized anyway?].

ND: You don't have to actually do anything, but you do need to look in the right direction.

I: Well, I have to admit that these two perspectives on Plotinus almost perfectly mirror the different views of, say, mystical and emanationist paths, versus Advaita and Zen. However, I may have found an answer to the dilemma of there being two seemingly different teachings in Plotinus. It may not answer all of our questions, but still, I think you will find it interesting. It may even support your position. Deck himself asks:

"And yet how can soul, insofar as it is rooted in the world of true being, actually descend? It cannot; Plotinus says in one place that it "appears to descend." The "descent" of soul is a metaphor... [Nevertheless] the world can be known as Nous, as true being. But it can be known also as Nous with a mission to form and order matter, therefore no longer perfectly as Nous, but as soul - and this is to know something real. And again, the world can be known as soul no longer capable of producing within itself, but capable only of producing upon matter - this again is to know something real, nature." (4)

Interestingly, it was not only Plotinus who was confusing in this respect, but also Ramana Maharshi. If you examine his position in the (freely) translated version he made of Sankara’s Vivekachudamuni whilst living in Virupaksha Cave (1899-1916) [see The Lost Years of Ramana Maharshi], you will see that in the earlier part of the work he argued that the traditional vedantic means of preparation: sravana, manana, and niddhiyasana, led to Nirvikalpa Samadhi, through which was attained the strength essential for direct realization of the supreme Self, and which in fact (Nirvikalpa) then led spontaneously to the direct perception or knowledge of Brahman. He also wrote in this translation:

“It is the projecting power of Maya together with its veiling power which unites the soul with the ego, the cause of delusion, and, through its qualities, keeps a man dangling like a ghost. If the veiling power is destroyed the Self will shine of itself, and there will be no room either for doubt or obstruction. Then the projecting power also will vanish, or even if it persists, its persistence will only be apparent. But the projecting power cannot disappear unless the veiling power does....Pure discrimination born of perfect knowledge distinguishes the subject from the object and destroys the delusion due to ignorance....Thus, only when one obtains realization of the Supreme Identity through Nirvikalpa Samadhi will ignorance be destroyed without vestige and the knot of the heart loosed..Thus the discriminating soul must know the Atma tattva in order to be free from the bondage of samsara....Brahman can be clearly experienced without any barrier only through Nirvikalpa Samadhi." ( 5)

[Vedantic scholars are fairly unanimous that Sankara himself never asserted the necessity of samadhi for liberation, and may not even have mentioned it, and that it was much later that neo-advaitins familiar with the yoga traditions added this idea].

Near the conclusion of the translation, however, Ramana reverted to traditional non-dual advaitic teaching:

“It is impossible to argue that bondage (samsara) is caused by the veiling power (tamas) of Maya and Liberation by its destruction, since there is no differentiation apart from Maya. Such an argument would lead to a denial of the truth of Non-duality and an affirmation of duality. This would be contrary to the authority of the scriptures”...There is in truth no creation and no destruction; no one is bound, no one is seeking Liberation, no one is on the way to Deliverance. There are none Liberated. This is the absolute Truth.” (6)

When the dialogues in the mid-1930’s that later became the book,Talks with Ramana Maharshi, were held it is very clear that Bhagavan repeatedly emphasized that even repeated experiences of Nirvikalpa Samadhi were not necessary for, nor did they automatically lead to, Self-Realization or Sahaj, but only constant checking of the identifications of the mind and eradication of the vasanas as they arose would do so. It is therefore fairly apparent that his understanding of realization evolved over time.

ND: So there you have it: both Plotinus and Ramana assert that there is only an 'apparent' descent, or ‘projection’, of the soul, with knowledge the direct means to eradicate the veiling power of ignorance. The Nous or the Self, then, is still the real being of the world, with no intermediation required. There is nothing outside of the mind. That's it. Just accept the truth and see for yourself. No need for sadhana, purification, samadhi, the flowering of the soul or whatever. This is IT. Enlightenment - forget it. Only a final understanding of a simple cognitive error, that's what Advaita Vedanta maintains. Better yet, just see the myriad ways you constantly work at making yourself unenlightened and separate. Then enlightenment will take care of itself.

I: Ramakrishna often read the Ashtavakra Gita. Still, remember what he once said? - "I spit on your Vedanta!" And even until the end, Ramana would alternate between one position or the other, in terms of the effort required, whether the mind must die or “fall” into the heart, or not, and so on, depending on who he was talking to. So the issue of the Nous and the Soul in relationship to enlightenment, in my opinion, is still not settled.

Whatever the non-dual philosophy, many will still argue that the paradoxical structure of reality is such that the 'apparent I' must nevertheless be surrendered, and maybe even the 'apparent descent' or ‘projection’ retraced - thus giving the Soul its due - or we are just ‘whistlin' Dixie’.

ND: Nope. Sorry to disappoint you. It is much simpler than all that. Ramana came around in the end, and so did PB. In your best interests, you had better just stop reading and forget all that old stuff. The Truth will set you free.

I: Plotinus himself, too, bemoaned the fact that much of what he read was "old stuff". He wrote:

"Anaxagoras, again, in his assertion of a Mind pure and unmixed, affirms a complex First and a sundered One, although writing long ago he failed in precision." (7)

So I know what you mean. To continue, the Nous may be the 'Super-Reality' of the Soul, as Deck describes it, but remember, just to be clear, the Soul is an eternal Hypostasis embedded in or emanating from the Nous, and therefore itself real. It's not like we get to choose one or the other for our path. There is a divine mystery here. Anthony tried to describe it:

"We are presented with a Supreme Intelligence that does not loosen, dwindle, or divide itself, nor is it modified or spread out among the lower orders of reality. This is the initial premise. Appreciating this intact perfection is a necessary and absolute prerequisite to arrive at a proper understanding of emanation." [and non-duality] (8)

"Even if we view the three primal Hypostases - the One, Intellectual Principle and Soul - as forming an integral whole (which is often referred to as the Absolute when considered from the side of manifestation), the distinctions cannot be dissolved in such a way that the Nous and Soul, so carefully defined, become illusory principles [i.e., there is only the One, and all the rest is just a 'personal story']. In our understanding of the metaphysical Infinite, we retain the view of the One as the pure and only perfect reality, as well as the view of the real and distinct emanations from it. We do not violate the One's sovereignty by granting to each of the other levels of reality their proper status; they do not become null and void in the face of the One which they eternally contemplate." (9)

"It is this unit soul, the God within us, that may be referred to as our soul, our ultimate individuality and the true knower. It is man made in the image of God...this formless and infinite consciousness of the unit soul gets contracted and starts on a journey of self-realization. This contracted consciousness may be referred to as an impersonal or witnessing consciousness, and is associated with the planetary mind from which it receives the image of the World-Idea." (10)

So here he states that soul in its higher phase is infinite and formless consciousness, and its first contraction or emanation is itself an impersonal witnessing consciousness. Isn't that interesting? Where does that leave us in trying to jump right to the Nous, bypassing the Soul?

"For Plotinus, the unit soul or mind is a double knower - that is, it has self-cognition, undifferentiated being-consciousness [insight], which includes cognition of its source or origin
[i.e., Intellectual Principle, or Absolute Soul in the Intellectual Principle]. The lower knower or secondary phase - that is, the faculty of understanding or reasoning - will evolve by its journey through the cosmic circuit which is providing the circumstances, situations, and events that educe its potential and make it actual through experience." (11)

"Through reasoning on the content of the World-Idea which it is manifesting, the soul evolves its understanding until intellection becomes predominant, and this is brought to bear on its own self-nature. If the inquiry is pursued, this process will result in intrinsic self-awareness." (12)

ND: I can see you're struggling to hold on to the search. Just let it go. It has outlived its usefulness. Intellection has become predominant. Just "pursue the inquiry." Rest in the ignorance, the not-knowing. Really - what do we actually know?...... Maybe Plotinus is all alot of nonsense... I mean, I give him credit for preserving some ancient doctrines in the low ebb of the Kali Yuga, but how reliable is a guy who, according to Porphyry, wouldn't even take a bath? .................................................................................................................................................

As the debate had reached another impasse the contestants decided to wind down by watching an old movie, the classic western Shane. They settled into their chairs, leaving all thoughts behind and drifting to another time and place. All went well, but as the final scene unfolded they started to squirm, their dominant index fingers twitching:

Shane (I): I came to get your offer, Ryker.
Ryker (ND): I'm not dealing with you. Where's Starrett?
Shane: You're dealing with me, Ryker.
Ryker: I got no quarrel with you, Shane. You can walk out now and no hard feeling.
Shane: What's your offer, Ryker?
Ryker: To you, not a thing.
Shane: That's too bad. - Too bad. You've lived too long. Your kind of days are over.
Ryker: My days? And yours, gunfighter?
Shane: The difference is I know it.
Ryker: So we'll turn in our six-guns to the bartender, and we'll all start hoeing spuds, is that it?
Shane: Not quite yet. We haven't heard from your friend here.
Wilson (ND2): I wouldn't push too far if I were you. Our fight ain't with you.
Shane: It ain't with me, Wilson?
Wilson: No, it ain't, Shane.
Ryker: I wouldn't pull on Wilson, Shane. Will, you're a witness to this.
Shane: So you're Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What's that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I've heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I've heard that you're a low-down, Yankee liar.
Wilson: Prove it!

Part 3

1. John Deck, Nature, Contemplation, and the One (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1991), p. 132
2. Ibid, p. 50, 57
3. Instant Zen - Waking up in the Present, trans. by Thomas Cleary
4. John Deck, op. cit., , p. 136-137
5. The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, edited by Arthur Osborne (London: Ryder & Company, 1969 edition), p. 155-157
6. Ibid, p. 172
7. Stephen MacKenna, Plotinus: The Enneads (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1992), p. 431
8. Ibid, Appendix 1, p. 714
9. Ibid, p. 716
10. Ibid, p. 730
11. Ibid
12. Ibid, p. 737