Concepts and Reality

Uma Seaman wrote that “Conceptualization derives from linguistic knowledge not contact with real things. Labels, the names we give to form gives us the sense that something is really there, and based on this concept we cling to the sense of something being there. Concepts have no real existence on their own. They are empty of self -form. …  They do not exist for us without our concept of what it is. It is the grooves dug by our perceptions that hold us to form. What if our perception of our self radically shifts? What if the container gets blasted?

used to hold this view down to the letter. Ask brother Omkarananda; I wrote hundreds of pages on this topic. We spent hours–and years– discussing it. It is an important one.

Now, however, I have come to see that conceptualization isn’t just a matter of language and referring to nothing. Nor do I think that concepts necessarily imply a dualistic worldview; they do not.

My experience is that concepts arise out of a combination of language and contact with real things. Language gives us a matrix or medium through which to put labels to what we experience, to the diversity of the universe.

Often, neo-Advaitists (I’m not calling you one, just saying, this is a trend…) assume that concepts refer to nothing; that nonduality means there can’t be any differences of appearance whatsoever. This is simply not true. At the level of a realization of emptiness, there is the realization that everything depends on everything else, and hence nothing stands alone; therefore, all is empty of independent self-nature. However, there is a deeper level still, and that is that the nondual reality expresses itself as diversity of appearance. Another way of saying this is that the ontological unity appears to itself as phenomenological diversity; one seamless reality appears as diverse forms. All conceptualization does is give names to these diverse forms, these diverse appearances of the one reality, Brahman.

Now, it is also true that we can get caught in mere conceptualization. That is, we can come up with concepts that do not refer to anything in the universe and then speak abstractly of these concepts. But this is not what we do most of the time. There ARE diverse things and diverse appearances. The mistake most people make, however, is to assume that this is the final word on the issue; what they miss is the seamless nonduality of which the web of interdependence is the expression. That is, they miss the fact that concepts refer to parts or facets of the seamlessly united whole and think they stand alone.

Concepts are wonderful. Without them, there would be nothing stopping us from realizing that eating cyanide is not the same as eating a delicious apple pie. The very fact that these two things have very different effects on you: one making you smile, the other making you DIE, points to the fact that differences are real. It just so happens that the real differences are interdependent, interconnected, and seamlessly one. Concepts are wonderful and as is the nondual reality of which they are themselves forms of appearance.

As a final point, whether we have a ‘concept’ of an aggressive rattlesnake or not, if we happen to be in the vicinity of one, we will find it is very real indeed when it bites and kills us. This remains true even if, while dying from the bite, we keep repeating “there is no snake apart from my concept of it…” There is a snake. The concept of ‘snake’ is simply a model in the mind of this real snake in the world. Both the concept and snake appear in awareness. They are both facets of reality.


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