Swami Tyagananda is the minister of the Ramakrishna-Vedanta Society in Boston. Before coming to America, he was the editor of the Vedanta Kesari, one of the journals associated with the Ramakrishna Order in Chennai, India.
In a June 1895 letter, Swami Vivekananda wrote from Thousand Island Park in upstate New York to Mary Hale in Chicago:
The more the shades around deepen and the more the ends approach, the more one understands the true meaning of life, that it is a dream; and we begin to nderstand the failure of everyone to grasp it, for they only attempted to get meaning out of meaninglessness … Desire, ignorance, and inequality—this is the trinity of bondage. Denial of the will to live, knowledge, and samesightedness is the trinity of liberation. Freedom is the goal of the universe.
This profound passage from Swamiji’s letter provides a good starting point to reflect on the dimensions of inner freedom. “The shades around deepen” through age but there’s no guarantee that, on its own, merely getting old will produce a deeper understanding of life. To understand “the true meaning of life,” what is needed is maturity. Only a mature person sees life for what it truly is. Without maturity, neither the “trinity of bondage” nor the “trinity of liberation” will make sense.
There are three kinds of maturity: physical, psychological, spiritual. The first two—physical and psychological maturity— generally occur with age, though not necessarily at the same speed and certainly the extent of maturity varies from person to person. But spiritual maturity is not a function of age or even of experience. It is possible to grow old physically and yet remain a baby spiritually. It is possible to have all sorts of experiences and yet never learn enough from them to grow spiritually. On the other hand, it is quite possible to see amazing spiritual maturity in someone who is young and “inexperienced” in the eyes of the world. What are the factors necessary for spiritual maturity? At least four factors come to mind readily.
The first factor is theability to observe things without reacting immediately. It is easy to react, but difficult to withhold judgment and reaction. When we react to what is happening outside, we get involved in it. A detached witness sees things differently than someone who is involved in a situation. Sri Ramakrishna gave the example of people playing chess and others observing them. The observers can often see things that the players themselves cannot.
But this ability can be acquired only when there is a substantial reduction of the ego,which is the second factor essential for spiritual maturity. When the ego is strong, it wants to get involved in everything. With involvement comes the loss of capacity to be a neutral witness and the inability to put one’s experiences in the right context.
The third requirement, then, is the ability to place one’s observations and experiences in a larger picture, and see how they relate to one’s own place in life. The ability to step back from the details does not come easily but without it one cannot view a situation on a broader compass. Micro-management is good but without a macro-view, it can lead to unintended and often deleterious results.
Finally, for spiritual maturity we need the ability to learn from our experiences. Swami Vivekananda used to say: “To learn is religion.”
It is not enough to have experiences in life, we need the ability to learn the lessons that every experience brings. This can be a lifelong process. Sri Ramakrishna’s words come to mind: “As long as I live, so long do I learn.”
At least four factors, thus, are crucial for the development of spiritual maturity: observation without reacting, reduction of the ego, contextualizing one’s experiences, and learning from them. It is only a spiritually mature mind that can understand the significance of the trinity of bondage and the trinity of freedom.
The trinity of bondage is a chain: ignorance, desire and inequality are three of its links—each leading to the next—in a circular chain that continues endlessly unless and until it is snapped. Vedanta’s vision of reality is of one, infinite, perfect Being, beyond time, space and causality. Something inexplicable apparently seems to have happened to this nondual reality. Since no one knows how, why and when it happened, the first link in the chain is ignorance. The infinite Being was somehow overcome by some kind of sleep, forgot his own infinitude, and in a dream saw himself as a finite being. The original state of fulfillment lost, the dreamer began to desire things which were believed to bring fulfillment. Desire coupled with will produced intention which led to action. The world of action is also the world of inequality: inequality in the kinds of work and the kinds of results, and inequality among the people who reaped those results in different ways. Not for nothing did Swami Vivekananda say that inequality “is the source of all bondage.”
Trapped and bound in the vortex of karma, the inexorable chain of cause and effect, the dreamer was dragged from one day to the next, one year to the next, one life to the next. Death was no respite, as the power of unrequited karma led to another birth and more karma which, in turn, led to yet another birth. Every life is a new dream. Quite possibly, every day may be a new dream. The wheel of karma is relentless in its movement.
At face value, karma produced both joy and sorrow. Good karma produced happy results and bad karma produced painful results. While this might seem to be a fair deal, it actually is not. It is atrocious. There is no way to keep the joy and avoid the sorrow. There is no way to have only one and not the other. Worse, the dream seems endless: the dreamer continues to experience mortality, imperfection and ignorance. The trinity of bondage—ignorance, desire, inequality—remain firmly in place. The basic ingredients of human experience—namely, disease, aging and death at the physical level and stress, anxiety and alienation at the psychological level—are anything but fun. Even the fleeting and sporadic “happiness” experienced in life is severely compromised by the painful memories of the past and the anxiety-ridden uncertainty regarding the future. Which, in practical terms, means that life is basically suffering. This is the stark truth which formed the centerpiece of Buddha’s message. Sri Krishna referred to the world as “joyless” and as an “abode of suffering.”
The good news is that it’s not real. All of this happens in a dream. The bad news is that the dream is continuing; worse, most don’t even know that they are dreaming. We are in the dream even as we read this. Unless the dreamer wakes up, the dream is still real for her. Until then, the dream is the reality. It becomes a painful reality for those who have become sensitive to the defective nature of human existence. It is the truth of our present life, our present experience. Thankfully, it is a “lower” truth which can be overcome by a “higher” truth. As Swamiji pointed out, we are not traveling “from error to truth, but from truth to truth, … from lower truth to higher truth.”
The higher truth comes to us through the trinity of freedom.
The trinity of bondage has to be replaced by the trinity of freedom. We have seen that it is ignorance which initiated the chain reaction that culminated in the painful, vicious circle of birth and death and all the mess that occurs in-between. The only way to overcome ignorance is knowledge. Predictably, knowledge is the first entity in the trinity of freedom. What knowledge are we talking about?
It is helpful to begin with the “lower truth” and work our way upward toward the “higher truth.” The lower truth is who we are at present: mortal, vulnerable beings, ignorant not only of our distant past but even of our immediate future. We need both knowledge of who we are at present and also the insight to realize that it is not who we really are. Our current knowledge of the self, our present “I” represented by the ego, is at best a “lower self” or, as Sri Ramakrishna liked to call it, an “unripe-I.”
If we never let go of the insight that our presently experienced self is the “lower” self, it is possible to awaken the “higher self,” or to get to know who we really are, through guidance from a qualified teacher (guru) and a determined all-out effort to do whatever it takes to get that saving knowledge. The knowledge that “saves” us is the knowledge that wakes us up from the dream-induced false identity of a mortal, imperfect human being. We wake up and discover our true identity of the free, immortal and divine Being. The more the “unripe-I” is shed, the more the “ripe-I” begins to take its place. When knowledge reaches its culmination, the “I” drops off and the ripeness alone remains, manifesting the two other entities in the trinity of freedom: denial of the will to live, and samesightedness.
The will to live is a direct, if usually instinctive, response to the fear of death. Ignorance makes us cling to life with the hope of keeping death as far away as possible. One of the first fruits of knowledge is the realization that life is inseparable from death. We cannot understand life without understanding death, and vice versa. Life without death is impossible. The phrase “eternal life” becomes meaningful only if and when “life” is assigned a meaning different from life as an antipode of death. Denial of the will to live implies denial of the possibility of death, since both life and death belong to the body. The body is part of the “unripe I” which has vanished. With the clarity of vision bestowed by the ripeness of knowledge, we are able to rise beyond both life and death. What lies beyond them is Being or Existence itself. It is this that religious texts refer to as “eternal life.”
Another fruit of knowledge is the perception of sameness. We are same only at the spiritual level. Physically and psychologically we are different, because “name” and “form” divide—or at least seem to divide—the wholeness. As water, the ocean is one, even continuous, yet we divide it with names such as the Pacific or the Atlantic. The wholeness of the ocean is affected also when we recognize the forms of its waves. Yet it is easy to see that these divisions based on name and form are superficial. They may serve some useful purpose but basically such divisions are more illusory than real. It may be possible, even if superficially, to create divisions in the material world. At the level of spirit, though, division are impossible, because—as pure consciousness—spirit is immutable. It is also one and infinite. It is knowledge that endows the person with clarity of vision which is not hampered by names and forms. A spiritually free person sees through all names and forms, and encounters the undivided spirit everywhere. Samesightedness is the natural result.
In his talks on Jnana Yoga, Swamiji raises these questions: “What is this universe? From what does it arise? Into what does it go?” And this is his answer: “In freedom it arises, in freedom it rests, and into freedom it melts away.”
His words on the trinity of bondage and the trinity of freedom are useful springboards for our own personal reflections on the subject.