An Introduction to Kashmiri Shaivism and Contemplative Christianity
The teachings and contemplative practices of Kashmiri Shaivism—a non-dual, indeed monist, tradition—help bring to light, and therefore into our lives, parallel non-dual experiences articulated by Christian contemplatives, mystics, and theologians. These experiences have remained largely outside of mainstream Christian conversation and practice until relatively recently.
Kashmiri Shaivism is a philosophy which evolved in Kashmir between the 8th and 12th Centuries, A.D. Its philosophy is distinguished by both syntheses and creative impulses: fusing wisdom from several other schools of eastern thought, including Advaita-Vedanta and Buddhism, while maintaining its original distinctive concepts.
Christian contemplatives as distant in time and place as St. Augustine and Meister Eckhardt describe experiences of the process of coming into more complete knowledge of Divine Being that share much in common with the sages of Kashmiri Shaivism. While they and others across time and place have recorded their experiences, they have not necessarily provided practices that allow others to cultivate these experiences outside of admonitions to Know God, Know Thyself, Meditate, or Pray without Ceasing.
Nevertheless, these two contemplative traditions have many things in common. One of these is an understanding of the “Five Acts” of God. While in Kashmiri Shaivism these acts are explicitly noted, in the Christian tradition they are implicitly understood but remain largely unexplored. Both traditions embrace the belief that Divine Being creates all things, sustains all things, conceals and reveals itself as all things, and ultimately withdraws all of creation back into its Infinite Existence. These functions constitute the five acts of God as understood in Kashmiri Shaivism: creation, sustenance, dissolution, concealment, revelation. Each of these acts, though we may think of them as sequential, occurs simultaneously in every moment of finite existence. While this may seem implausible when we first encounter the idea, exploring it through contemplative practice helps make it increasingly clear.
The five acts of God, as well as the contemplative practices that reveal them, are rooted in stillness. “Be still and know that I am God”—taken from Psalm 46, is a Hebrew teaching widely embraced by contemplative Christians. The Greek word for still is Skola—the same root word found in “school.” In this school of stillness we are educated to the presence of God. God is still. As we align ourselves to the stillness of Divine Being, we enter the vast, eternal, Infinite, which is without form or name, and which is utterly still. This practice is the traditional “vacare Deo” of the Carmelites, the resting in God, the being still so that we may enter into Divine Presence just as Divine Presence enters into us because we are still.
In that stillness we discover something miraculous—that there is subtle movement. This is the movement of Divine Being overflowing with the Love that is its essential nature. Divine Being desires to pour itself forth into creation. To do so, there must be movement. The apostle Paul aludes to this dynamic in another Biblical passage popular among contemplative Christians, Acts 17:28, where Paul quotes Epimenides of Crete regarding the closeness of God: “In him we live and move and have our being.”
This movement within stillness is difficult to grasp if we have not experienced it, and harder still to put language to. One of the most beautiful descriptions of Divine movement within the stillness of Being is found in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:
At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered.
Neither movement from nor towards. Neither ascent nor decline.
Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, (London 1943), Burnt Norton, II.
This subtle movement takes place within Divine Being. All creation exists within Divine Being itself whose movement takes place within the stillness and whose unity is not diminished by its manifestation of material creation. For all of material creation is created from Love which, when poured forth and given out, is not diminished, but increases.
We grasp this not by reason, but rather in the experience of our contemplative act, which is a non-act, the non-act of stillness in which we are not “doing” but simply “being.” In the Kashmiri Shaivite tradition this movement is called Spanda, from the root word spandi, which means “subtle movement.” Spanda is the pulsation, the active principle, of Divine Being, Divine Consciousness. There is a continuous movement, a pulsation, an outpouring of Divine Being, of infinite, vast, eternal, formless Love—into finitude, into time and space, into a multiplicity of forms, shapes, colors, densities. Divine Being chooses freely to become everything that exists, from the most subtle form, such as thought, to the densest, such as rock.
Some of us find this concept easier to grasp when we think of it in terms of what we know from modern physics. We know that all things are made of matter. Our bodies are made of matter; rocks, trees, and cookies are made of matter. All of these things have completely different shapes, forms, colors, and mass, yet they are all made of matter itself. Each thing is simultaneously a unique manifestation or configuration of matter, while also being matter itself.
The Divine Being in Kashmiri Shaivism
Kashmiri Shaivism posits that Divine Being becomes the atomic particles, the matter from which all material, finite existence is made. It also exists as forms more subtle even than matter, such as sound, light, or thought.
In the Shaivite tradition, two things distinguish Divine Being: Divine Being desires to create and freely wills creation from itself, and Divine Being knows itself. It knows itself both as Infinite, vast, eternal Being, as well as each and every unique individual finite manifestation—each “thing” in all of creation. Because Infinite Being knows itself both as Divine, Infinite Being, and as every unique and individual finite manifestation of itself, we, too can know ourselves— both as and within our finite, limited self [our bodies and minds] and as full participants in Divine Being.
Christian contemplative history is full of the recognition of this non-dual experience. We find it expressed in various ways, albeit in slightly different language. First, there is the shared experience and understanding that coming into awareness of Divine Being is an inward movement, and movement into stillness. “And see, you were within, and I was in the external world and sought you there.” (Augustine Confessions, Bk X, Chapter 27).
Augustine continues, “. . . in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You were with me, but I was not with you.” [Italics mine].
From the Kashmiri Shaivite point of view this is a beautiful recognition: God reveals His existence in and as all of creation if we are paying attention. God is hidden in “all of the lovely things” and we are often distracted by them. But when we become still, if we pay attention, then these same things—which is to say everything—reveal God. Everything and every moment of daily life reveals God. In Kashmiri Shaivism this is expressed in the Sutra, “Na Shivam Vidyate Qua Chit.” [Translation] “There is nothing that is not God.” That is, there is no place, no thing, no one, nothing that is not God.
In his Confessions, Augustine is exquisite in his articulation of this Truth. His Latin is sonorous in meter and rhyme. His imagery recalls the Song of Songs as well as Plato’s Symposium. He grounds the revealing of this Truth in his five senses, embodying the Infinite in the finitude of our bodily and sensory organs and perceptions. He articulates how his sense perceptions, which once created obstacles to the Knowledge of Divine Being by distracting him with the “lovely creations,” now are instruments of the revelation itself. “You called . . . and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put flight to my blindness. You were fragrant . . . I tasted you . . . you touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” [Augustine, Confessions, Book X, Chapter 27]
When we come to the recognition of this Truth expressed in both the Sutra and the passage from the Confessions, we come to understand that what we do in every moment of our lives is profound. Our daily condition is profound because even our most trivial or mundane perception is rooted and grounded in our own fundamental being as Infinite Being. Each thought we have, each breath we take, each act we perform is extraordinary and infinitely profound even in its ordinariness.
In Kashmiri Shaivism we unite with God as “all of the lovely things” when they are truly known. In every moment all of the lovely things, the daily moments, thoughts, and objects, provide the opportunity for the recognition that there is nothing but God. For “if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.” There is nothing unknown if we are paying attention.
Divine Being eternally manifests in a joyous outpouring of itself [Love] into material form—into the world, into finite existence. Finite existence is finite in that it exists within time; everything in this universe that is created has a beginning, middle, and end to life. Thus, we are able to be aware of Divine Being through its acts of creating, sustaining, concealing, revealing, and withdrawing. When we pay attention we realize that this is occurring in every moment: in the arising and falling away of all things—in every sound that sounds and dissolves, in every thought that arises and dissolves, in our breath as it arises, flows, and dissolves only to rise and flow again, in the waves that wash the shore, in the sun that rises, traverses the heavens, and sets, in every beginning, middle, and end.
Human beings are granted the gift of being able to pay attention, to cultivate consciously the seed of God hidden within us and within our consciousness. This is, in fact, the purpose of our lives—in and through our bodies and with our minds to become full and conscious participants in the subtle movement of revealing. In the words of 13th-century Dominican theologian Meister Eckhardt:
“God is nearer to me that I am to my own self: my life depends upon God’s being near me, present in me. So is he also in a stone, a log of wood, only they do not know it. If the wood knew of God and realized his nearness like the highest angel does, then the log would be as blessed as the chief of all the angels.” [Meister Eckhardt, by Franz Pfeiffer, Leipzig, 1857, translated by John Watkins, London, 1924. Vol I page 914.]
Kashmiri Shaivism and the Trinity
The concept of Spanda, of the pouring forth of Divine Consciousness into material, finite, existence, and then withdrawing back into its own infinite Being illuminates beautifully the often puzzling Christian concept of the Trinity, and sets it firmly within the five acts of Shaivism. But first let’s look at how a sense of duality, of God’s existence as external to us rather than being the Life that Lives us, came into Christian belief and practice in the 4th century with the Arian heresy. You don’t have to look too far to see how Arianism has influenced modern Christianity: The present doxology reads, “Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The pre-Arian statement was “Glory be to the Father, through the son, in the Holy Spirit,” which recognized the subtle movement of the Word, Logos, proceeding from and returning to the Father. [italics mine] Arius, however, taught that the Son was a created being and therefore subordinate to and separate from the Father, effectively demoting and separating all sons and daughters from the Divine.
Prior to and outside of this Arian influence, the Trinity is an image of unity that actually reflects the Five Acts of God found in Kashmiri Shaivism: That which was hidden is revealed through incarnation: in the creation, sustenance, and dissolution, through subtle movement of logos into a finite material existence, Jesus Christ, who then returns to his Infinite, Eternal source. The Holy Spirit is Spanda—the active principle of the still God, his creative principle, and Jesus Christ is the manifestation of the Eternal, Infinite Father in finite form.
Christ’s life becomes a promise of the possibility of attaining the knowledge we seek, for he shows us the way to Realization. By paying attention to his life, by following his example, through study, self-effort, and contemplation, Christ becomes the “guiding hand leading us to the Godhead,” as St. Thomas Aquinas put it.
And of course, Christ’s life itself, as presented in the Gospels, is full of acts of creation, preservation, revealing, concealing, and dissolution. For example, Christ’s healings dissolve illness by a creative act which renews and preserves life: revealing the divine presence concealed in his human body. Analogously, Jesus calling Levi to be an apostle dissolved the “old man” in him by creating the “new man,” revealing the action of Grace concealed in the simple words “Follow me.” Yet at the same time Levi’s conversion preserves the continuity of his life so that, as with St. Matthew, he remembers his sinful life as a tax collector when he records the words and deeds of Jesus as an Evangelist.
Our own lives are equally revealing, for we cannot be alive without participating in these five acts—lived as we are in Divine Consciousness. Our lives are a living, breathing, continuous embodied enactment of Spanda. In every moment we create, sustain, dissolve, conceal, and reveal. Our bodies do this on a cellular level. New cells are created as old ones die while others are preserved. This is concealed from us, inside of our bodies and outside of our consciousness until we think about it—then this wondrous activity is revealed to us. Our thoughts arise, are created, sustained for a time, and dissolve, they reveal or conceal worlds as they come and go. The seasons are created, they are sustained for a time, they reveal their seasonal nature, dissolve, and are concealed until they come again.
These five acts constitute the active, perceptible presence, the Being of Divine Being in the world, in our bodies, in our minds, and in our lives. And we become aware of this when we pay attention. Contemplative practices involving silent stillness help cultivate awareness, but paying attention is a spiritual practice in and of itself. The next time it rains, pause and notice the rain, whether you’re inside or outside. The rain arose (was created) and is sustained in its activity for a time. Even as it rains, it is concealing—the sky perhaps or a building across the way. It is also revealing—perhaps its scent, or its wetness. The rain itself creates, a puddle or some mud that wasn’t there before. The puddle and the mud will be preserved for a while, and then dissolve away after the rain itself dissolves. And so it goes—an endless play of the five acts.
Another contemplative practice is available to us each time we sit down to a meal. When you eat you may be aware that the food before you has been created—through an entire process of cultivation from seeds which are concealed in the Earth, and then reveal their nature as corn or barley as they grow, they are destroyed so that they may be re-created by the process of cooking into something savory and edible. They now conceal their flavors from you even as they reveal themselves to you as food you see with your eyes and smell with your nose. Another layer of revealing while simultaneously concealing itself in your mouth as the tastes are revealed to your tongue. It sustains you at the same time it is concealed in your body, where is exists for a while, and so it goes.
Being aware of these ongoing interrelated acts helps us to keep the play of Divine Being always in mind and at heart. What I have appreciated in my studies of Kashmiri Shaivism is the way in which the philosophy articulates the experiences we may have of Divine Being: in this case the experience and understanding that all things have their life within Him—that we are Lived as much as Living; that all finite existence provides an opportunity for knowing this more fully and deeply if we are paying attention.
In Kashmiri Shaivism we have a philosophy that illuminates universal experiences and shows us that no matter by which religious or philosophical path we come to them, we may cultivate the knowing of Divine Being through spiritual practices by which we begin to pay attention to God in everything. Resting in this knowledge—that all things have their being within Infinite Being—is not a matter of “stages” of enlightened recognition, but rather of cultivated experience. Thus, ultimately we come to rest in this very recognition for greater and greater stretches of time—a kind of infinity and eternity here, now.