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List of Figures and Tables xi

Foreword xv
Robert A. F. Thurman
Preface xix
Helmut Wautischer
Introduction xxi
Stanley Krippner

I Expanding the Ontological Matrix 1

1 The Emptying of Ontology: The Tibetan Tantric View 5

E Richard Sorenson
2 The Soul and Communication between Souls 79
Edith L. B. Turner

3 Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought in the Era of the Conquest 97

James Maffie
4 Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul in Cross-
Cultural Perspective 127
Armand J. Labbé

5 Why One Is Not Another: The Brain-Mind Problem in Byzantine Culture 163
Antoine Courban
6 Soul and Paideia: On the Philosophical Value of a Dialectical Relation 193
Michael Polemis
viii Contents

II Localizing Subjective Action 205

7 Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 209

Hubert Markl
8 Consciousness Cannot Be Explained in Terms of Specific Neuronal Types and
Circumscribed Neuronal Networks 231
Mircea Steriade
9 Consciousness as a Relation between Material Bodies 241
Pavel B. Ivanov
10 The Priority of Local Observation and Local Interpretation in Evaluating the
‘‘Spirit Hypothesis’’ 273
David J. Hufford
11 Effects of Relativistic Motions in the Brain and Their Physiological
Relevance 313
Mariela Szirko

12 A Palindrome: Conscious Living Creatures as Instruments of Nature; Nature as an

Instrument of Conscious Living Creatures 359
Mario Crocco

III Experience of Existence 395

13 The Evolution of Consciousness in Sri Aurobindo’s Cosmopsychology 399

Matthijs Cornelissen
14 An Existentialist Understanding of Consciousness 429
Julia Watkin

15 Toward an Ontology of Consciousness with Nicolai Hartmann and Hans

Jonas 449
Karim Akerma
16 Thinking Like a Stone: Learning from the Zen Rock Garden 475
Graham Parkes

17 The Concept of Person in African Thought: A Dialogue between African and

Western Philosophies 507
Heinz Kimmerle
18 Of Indian God-Men and Miracle-Makers: The Case of Sathya Sai Baba 525
Erlendur Haraldsson
Contents ix

19 Sentient Intelligence: Consciousness and Knowing in the Philosophy of Xavier

Zubiri 549
Thomas B. Fowler

20 Ontology of Consciousness: Reflections on Human Nature 575

Thomas Szasz
Epilogue 587
Christian de Quincey

Contributors 593
Index 605
Figures and Tables

Figure 1.1 Young Tibetan novices 6

Figure 1.2a Novice memorizes his particular studies while subconsciously
harmonizing 7
Figure 1.2b A senior monk harmonizes the evocative power of a Tantric
ritual 7
Figure 1.3 Debating aggregation at Gaden Monastery 8
Figure 1.4 Reasoned challenges are athletically considered on rational
merits, not rank 9
Figure 1.5 Young novice awed by the sounds of a Tantric ritual 22
Figure 1.6 Heruka Tantric practice includes iconographic diagrams 26
Figure 1.7 Choreographic representation of the inescapability of death 27
Figure 1.8 Elder monk concentrates on the nonverbal aspects of
consciousness 28
Table 1.1 Eighty obstructive states of consciousness 31
Figure 1.9a Ancient statue of Mahakala 36
Figure 1.9b Ancient statue of Avalokiteswara reveals calm joyousness 36
Figure 1.10a Heruka unites with Vajrayogini 38
Figure 1.10b Guhyasamaja registers fervor during consort practice 39
Figure 1.11 A rope hammock attracts excited conjoint exploration by
novices 47
Figure 1.12 Conjoint sleeping by young novices 50
Figure 1.13 Novices raptly harmonize into a Tantric ritual 52
Figure 1.14 Participation in Tantric ritual by young Tibetan novices
inspires others 53
xii Figures and Tables

Figure 1.15a Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Abbot of Schechan Tantric

Monastery 54
Figure 1.15b Losang Thinley Khensur, Abbot of Gyumed Tantric University 54
Figure 1.15c Losang Tenzin Khensur, Gyumed Tantric University 55
Figure 1.15d Losang Nawang Khensur, Abbot of Gyumed Tantric
University 55
Figure 1.15e Geshe Lharmpa Tashi Gyaltsen 55
Figure 1.15f Chosang Phunrab, Sanskrit and Tibetan scholar 55
Figure 3.1 Tlatilco funerary mask symbolizing duality 99
Figure 3.2 Mixtec funerary mask symbolizing duality 100
Figure 4.1 Shaman with conical hat: trance theme 134
Figure 4.2 Shaman with white cape: trance theme 135
Figure 4.3 Spirit bird: shaman-in-flight theme 136
Figure 4.4 Ithyphallic horned figure holding rattles: empowered-
shaman theme 136
Figures 4.5a–b Horned figure: empowered-shaman theme 137
Figures 4.6a–b Horned figure with drum: empowered-shaman theme 137
Figure 4.7 Severed head with horn: soul-capture theme 138
Figures 4.8a–b Seated horned figure: empowered-shaman theme 138
Figure 4.9 Horned shaman strapped to bed 138
Figure 4.10 Textile: empowered shaman with animal familiars 139
Figure 4.11 Mummy mask: shaman with lightning tingunas 140
Figure 4.12 Mummy mask: shaman with cat-headed tingunas 140
Figure 4.13 Mummy mask: shaman with tingunas 141
Figure 4.14 Mummy mask: empowered-shaman figure 141
Figure 4.15 Mummy mask: shaman with human-headed tingunas 141
Figure 4.16 Mummy mask: shaman with serrated tingunas 141
Figures 4.17a–b Shaman in trance and empowerment themes 142
Figure 4.18 Drawing of the Gateway God at Tiwanaku 143
Figure 4.19 Stirrup-spout vessel: winged-shaman-in-combat theme 144
Figure 4.20 Pedestaled bowl: shaman in transformation and soul flight 146
Figure 4.21 Drawing of a winged shaman rendered in Olmec style 147
Figure 4.22 Drawing of transformed Olmec shaman 149
Figures and Tables xiii

Figure 4.23 Drawing of Olmec shaman in jaguar transformation 149

Figure 4.24 Drawing of Olmec shaman in jaguar transformation 149
Figures 4.25a–b Metate in the form of a jaguar 150
Figure 4.26 Bowl referencing the three divisions of the shamanic
universe 151
Figure 4.27 Sculpture of fanged personage in menacing posture 152
Figure 4.28 Sculpture of shamanic figure with alter ego 152
Figure 4.29 Sculpture of fanged anthropomorphic personage 153
Figure 4.30 Sculpture of fanged figure with felinelike alter ego 153
Figures 4.31a–b Figural jar: shaman in avian transformation 154
Figures 4.32a–b Double-spouted jar: polymorphic shaman in soul flight 159
Figure 8.1a Responses of intrinsically bursting neuron 236
Figure 8.1b Area 7 neuron in cat 237
Figure 9.1 Hierarchy of activity 259
Figure 9.2 Consciousness as the boundary of subject 260
Figure 9.3 The scope of activity as an analog of meaning 261
Figure 9.4 Dimensions of activity 263
Figure 14.1 Kierkegaard at Gilleleie, 1835 434
Figure 15.1 The four ontological strata according to Hartmann 451
Figure 15.2 Matter and consciousness belonging to one reality 462
Figure 17.1 Community spirit in African life places the community
above persons 512
Figure 17.2 Consciousness of the Abaluya people includes a balance
between person and community 519
Figure 19.1 Three traditions of intellection that influenced Zubiri’s
Noology 556
FIgure 19.2 Sentient intelligence in Zubiri’s philosophy 561

Robert A. F. Thurman

There is nothing more immediate to human beings than the experience of their own
consciousness. René Descartes even thought his subjective existence, res cogitans, was
the one thing in the universe he could be absolutely certain about. Indian philoso-
phers over several millennia thought they had found pure consciousness in an all-
pervasive, ultimate nature of the universe, and normal individual consciousness is
most often found to be delusive. More recently, scientific research has focused on
what was thought to be a necessary conclusion, namely, that consciousness is but an
epiphenomenon of the brain, a deceptively ‘‘subjective’’ experience aggregated by ma-
terial processes of an organic mechanism.
Various religious philosophies speak of a nonmaterial soul, mind, or consciousness
as the essence of a living being. Knowledge of the evolution of Western vocabularies
gives insight from the rational beginnings of Western culture itself: for example the
term animal emerged from the idea of possessing anima (Latin for ‘‘soul’’). Modern sci-
entists pride themselves on their impressive demonstrations of the actions of materials,
but they tend to leave aside the internally experiential nature of consciousness in favor
of mapping the neural activity their instruments are able to detect and measure. They
witness that awareness, just like atoms, dissolves under analysis, and hold with cer-
tainty the absence of soul as the essence (or nonessence) of a being. Consciousness
may be all these things and more. As this collection of essays by Helmut Wautischer
reveals, current scholarship has, up to now, fallen short by devoting too much of its
efforts toward reducing awareness to materialistic components and mechanisms.
The range of materials assembled herein goes much further and presents an extraor-
dinarily rich and fascinating symposium on consciousness prepared by a diverse group
of scholars, researchers, as well as social and natural scientists. They come from neuro-
scientific, biological, and anthropological backgrounds, and even Marxist materialism.
A wide variety of humanistic perspectives are revealed: secularist, spiritual, and scien-
tific. Yogic Hinduism and Tantric Buddhism can be found. There are arguments for
evolutionary explanations of consciousness and arguments for entertaining spiritual
perspectives. Studies of ancient and modern societies and ideologies from different
xvi Robert A. F. Thurman

ethnographical and religious perspectives are included. By its breadth the volume
rewards the diligent reader with exposure to an unusual agility and flexibility of mind
and, in synthesis of the materials provided, new vistas to consider.
Whether approached scientifically or philosophically, the study of consciousness to
date has presented serious paradoxes: the materialistic approach is ultimately con-
fronted with particles that surpass their own identifiable properties, while a normative
approach, when rigorously pursued, eventually outstrips laws governing individuation.
The role of consciousness is—as it always has been—crucial to comprehension of
percipient action. There is a growing recognition that a fuller understanding of con-
sciousness is needed if human life on earth is to remain viable. So far science is falling
short of this need. At present it is unable even to demonstrate the existence of con-
sciousness as an entity. Similarly philosophers find it difficult to identify consciousness
with a clear ontological status. Some scholars see it as an archaic concept (like ‘‘magic,’’
‘‘soul,’’ or ‘‘spirit’’). Thus it remains poorly understood, awaiting explanation via new
modalities for experience and thought. How indeed shall we study something clearly
obvious to all beings but which cannot be proved by the analytical methods currently
at our disposal? Yet it cannot be rationally dismissed as an illegitimate object of study
since its existence is so clearly evident to all who are conscious.
Many proponents of consciousness studies try to oversimplify—for example holding
too rigidly to materialistic dictums or to mind-body dualism. Others simply deny the
existence of nonmaterial entities. And there are those who insist that physical pro-
cesses cannot have nonphysical components. And so on. There has been a general
failure to recognize the foundations of Western terminology; for example, very few
researchers on consciousness understand the basic meanings of such Greek concepts
as physis, psyche, and so on. Likewise, oversimplified interpretations of nonwestern eth-
ical and social thought do not attain true intellectual status, thus depriving us of the
fuller knowledge base we now need regarding the nature of consciousness—a result of
ethnocentric tendencies by scholars who believe their own culturally and historically
evolved ideas of objectivity and rationality are universal. Changes proceed slowly in
such fundamental things. Note that it has taken Western civilization several centuries
of hard intellectual struggle to use the term world religions (i.e., religion as a plural con-
cept). Similarly many secular scientists find it difficult to use science in the plural, de-
spite ample anthropological knowledge of cultural variations in cognition.
This volume of essays presents a fascinating dialogue between philosophers, scien-
tists, anthropologists, intellectual historians, and thinkers grounded in several spiritual
traditions. The breadth of the collective dialogue challenges the reductionism of scien-
tific materialism and pushes thinking toward incorporating seemingly nonphysical
aspects in analyses of complex adaptive systems. By contextualizing core concepts
from various disciplines and regions, this collection of essays is a unique resource for
Foreword xvii

those desiring to think past intellectual barriers posed by contemporary philosophy

and science—barriers that have begun to threaten the future of our human species.
The ancient Indian sage, Shantideva, remarked, ‘‘When your bare feet are injured by
stepping on sharp things, you have two choices: pave the entire earth with leather, or
make yourself a pair of sandals.’’ Consulting such wisdom traditions will help us de-
velop a more sophisticated science and practice of mind by lessening our tendency to
make the outer world conform to any particular culturally parochial mode of thinking
and desire, and learning to direct the skills of localized percipient action. With great
appreciation for this volume’s participation in a critical enterprise, I recommend it
and congratulate the editor and contributors.

Robert A. F. Thurman
Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies,
Department of Religion, Columbia University, New York
Editor-in-Chief, Treasury of the Buddhist Sciences

The defining traits of human experience—consciousness, sentient action, and dis-

course—have traditionally developed along the trajectory pathways for knowledge
provided by culture, religion, philosophy, and science. Such natural progression of
knowledge presumably gives a kind of objectivity that anchors and validates itself. It
is a well-grounded claim, but valid only up to a point, as a more careful assessment of
percipient action will soon reveal that a desire for objectifiable causation can be sub-
stantiated only in defined spaces. One only needs to take a close look at any culture’s
evolved cognitive patterns to see that its chains of causation are demonstrated by refer-
ence to its established cognitive entities. So whatever further ‘‘truths’’ get established
thus have an element of parochialness. Such selection is not necessarily bad, since all
viable systems will have valid experiential basis for their assertions. Likewise, percipi-
ent action proceeds tangentially to established belief. History shows us it can be a use-
ful means to get out of disadvantageous cultural ruts. Nonetheless, at the level of
physical causation, any interference with undefined causation might trigger localizable
action, but cannot account for action assessment of the undefined ‘‘other.’’ Such
action will manifest in micro- and macroscopic levels of reality, and in ‘‘people’’ of all
sorts, including humans, plants, rocks, and even planets. Stipulating broad concepts
of consciousness that extend their presumed properties to ‘‘everything that exists’’ is
surely not helpful to touch directly on the down-to-earth particularities of a given per-
cipient action. A productive approach is to consider field variables that may influence
spontaneous action, and perhaps sentience itself. This requires attention to all percipi-
ent actions, including those spontaneous ones that at times generate paradigm shifts.
At the level of humans, reflective action manifests in a variety of experience that
spans from self-centered personhood to degrees of relationship with whatever one can
sense as ‘‘other.’’ For the human enterprise, such experience is the story of mankind. In
its most barren manifestation, the Darwinian model can serve as suitable metaphor,
but in a domain of sentient evolution there is no solace in conquest, since at the core
of subtle awareness is one’s realization of interconnectedness. This anthology presents
in one volume a significant selection of such experience: archaeological epistemology
xx Preface

derived from a collective record of human experience, together with a daring scientific
map that unites theoretical rigor with the described practical skills. The ontological
claim presented in this anthology will challenge the reader beyond his or her comfort
zones, since when perceived in its liberating capacity, percipient action delivers objec-
tive knowledge to the generative potentiality of personal manifestation.
Scientific methodologies, by definition, must allow for objectifying manipulation of
the given research subject. It is no surprise that current theories of consciousness effec-
tively assess what consciousness is not. Intentional alteration of a subject’s behavior or
its corresponding neurophysiological activity does not reveal the originating source of
conscious agency. Consciousness research will require a similar methodological shift
that is noted in anthropological research when participatory ethnographers merge
with the cultures of their studies by ‘‘going native.’’ Similarly, consciousness research
will benefit from validating first-person experience as an authentic and legitimately
valid account of mentality.
Undoubtedly there is a boom in consciousness studies with the steadily increasing
number of researchers who ‘‘do consciousness.’’ It has become a trendy subject with
most perplexing actors. There is also no doubt that any lofty metaphysics that origi-
nates in belief or faith has no place in science. Once we have come to a full realization
of what it means that each and every one of us could be, in principle, no different from
any pile of dirt, only then have we matured to accept the courage, full responsibility for,
and beauty of reclaiming the ontology of existence. Building from the ashes of reason
a foundation of wisdom that shines its irresistible presence through the ever-present
vibration of being is a noble pursuit in the exploration of human consciousness.
This anthology has been in the making for nearly ten years. I wish to express my
thanks and gratitude to all authors for their perseverance with this task. Three of the
contributors, Julia Watkin, Armand Labbé, and Mircea Steriade, have passed away dur-
ing the preparation of the book. I am grateful for their foresight and motivation to
press toward the final editing of their respective chapters. It was only months later
that I understood some of their comments during the editorial dialogues. Thank you.
Generous support was given by the Institute of Noetic Sciences who helped with a seed
grant. Numerous readers and copyeditors have helped with fine-tuning the language of
different writing styles into a coherent volume. Thanks to Anita Rosenfield, Maitreya
Hawthorne, Lisa A. Smith, Elizabeth Judd, Stephanie Levin, and Evelyn McKenna for
their valuable help. My gratitude to Thomas E. Stone, Senior Editor at MIT Press,
for his perseverance to endorse the project, to all the support staff at MIT Press, and to
Suzanne Haddon for her artistic design of the book cover. Some copyright clearance
was needed for portions of chapters 8, 13, 16, and 17, and full credits are given in the
Notes sections.
Here is a toast to friends and colleagues who care to touch with truthful communica-
tion, in an unending desire for continuous delight in the creation of mindful sponta-
neous presence.

Stanley Krippner

William James (1958), the first U.S. psychologist of eminence, held that ‘‘normal wak-
ing consciousness’’ is only one special type of consciousness, and that ‘‘parted from
it by the filmiest of screens’’ different forms exist that ‘‘forbid a premature closing of
our accounts with reality’’ (p. 298). After a half century of ignoring the issues raised
by James regarding the topic of consciousness, psychologists began to pay attention
to such fundamental questions as the definition of consciousness, the components
of conscious experience, and the mechanisms of consciousness. One investigator,
Thomas Natsoulas (1992), found six different dictionary definitions of consciousness
(namely, the interpersonal meaning, the personal meaning, the awareness meaning,
the reflective meaning, the unitive meaning, and the general state meaning). Another
investigator, Imants Baruss, read the pertinent literature and identified six meanings
of the term (i.e., the characteristic of an organism that entails processing information
and acting on it, the explicit knowledge of one’s situation, subjective awareness, inten-
tionality, one’s sense of personal existence, and one’s participation in a shared plan).
In other words, there is no consensus on the definition of the word consciousness,
but those who use the term speak of a pattern or mosaic of a living organism’s percep-
tual, cognitive, and emotional processes—some of which occur while the organism is
fully aware and some of which take place while one is unaware of the environment
(e.g., when one is asleep or in a coma) or in so-called altered states of consciousness
(e.g., dreaming and meditation). These altered (or alternative) states have their own
peculiar subsystems, including the presence or absence of such functions as memory,
attention, awareness (of the internal and/or the external environment), sense of iden-
tity, input processing, unconscious processing, affect, sense of space and time, evalua-
tion, decision making, motor output, moral judgment, and intuition.
Since the resurgence of interest in the topic, and mostly due to improved empirical
findings in brain research, psychoneuroimmunology, and the neurosciences, the sub-
ject matter of consciousness has sparked numerous theories about its nature and mech-
anisms. In many spiritual traditions, consciousness is tied to the ancient notion of
the ‘‘soul,’’ some indigenous societies believing that each person had more than one.
xxii Stanley Krippner

Neuroscience discarded the soul decades ago, hoping that they could design a ‘‘theory
of everything,’’ perhaps with the cooperation of quantum physicists. Such a theory
would generate models that explore the physical connections between neurons, hold-
ing that consciousness is rooted in these connections. Consciousness, therefore,
becomes an emergent property of the brain, similar to the ‘‘wetness’’ of water and
the ‘‘transparency’’ of glass. The philosopher David Chalmers is not so sure. For him
the ‘‘hard problem’’ in consciousness studies is subjective experience, and this subjec-
tive nature of human consciousness prevents it from being explained in terms of sim-
pler components. The ‘‘hard problem’’ addresses why brain processing is accompanied
by an experienced inner life. Instead of something that can be broken down into indi-
vidual atoms, consciousness seems to be an irreducible, fundamental aspect of the uni-
verse, similar to space, time, and mass.
Divisive, emotionally charged, and of significant consequence for future generations,
the debate resembles concepts reminiscent of the older philosophical debates on dual-
ism versus monism. Some of the latest renditions of either paradigm call in question
the judicial foundations of modern societies, challenging the concepts of self, person-
hood, volition, or agency—even to a point of dismissing human agency, intention,
and ‘‘free will.’’ This model of consciousness stands in stark contrast to indigenous
models. The Mexican Huichols, for example, lived in a cosmos filled with powerful
spirits and intelligent energies, one that bears little resemblance to the one taken for
granted by Westerners. Hindu and Buddhist texts are replete with discussions of con-
sciousness and how to regulate it. One type of Buddhist meditation proposes five levels
of consciousness that can be attained, and each of these levels contains three subjec-
tively distinct levels, reflecting a construction of consciousness more subtle and com-
plex than anything found in Western conceptualizations.
Each of these perspectives can be thought of as a ‘‘story’’ about consciousness. These
‘‘stories’’ vie for serious consideration, attempting to gain the attention of the powerful
institutions that bestow research grants, foundation awards, academic appointments,
book contracts, and media appearances. As Michel Foucault famously proposed,
knowledge is not power, as many people assume; rather, powerful institutions deter-
mine what can pass for knowledge.
A number of writers (e.g., Ken Wilber) have attempted to make a synthesis of various
perspectives about consciousness, acknowledging the seemingly contradictory qualities
of existence, like singularity and wholeness. These attempts at synthesis recognize the
value and necessity of reaching beyond the boundaries of existing disciplines (such as
psychology, neurology, anthropology, and philosophy) to formulate an ontology of
consciousness that reconciles the static and active dimensions of existence, the visible
and the invisible manifestations of thought and feeling, and the common and the rare
phenomenologies of experience.
Introduction xxiii

Many theories have a capacity to generate testable hypotheses and create explana-
tory models that appear exhaustive in their descriptive and normative functionality.
However, such practice occurs at the expense of excluding equally viable but unincor-
porated events in nature. From this perspective, the current volume is a major contri-
bution to an integrative discourse. Scholars from thirteen cultures have contributed
from a spectrum of twelve research disciplines, ranging from neurophysiology to para-
psychology, from medicine to philosophy, and from mathematics to anthropology,
with each author making a valiant attempt to grasp the meaning of consciousness.
The book is organized in three parts. Part I explores consciousness from anthropolog-
ical data in support of philosophical interpretations related to Tibetology, the Dene
Tha Indians of Northwestern Alberta, the Nahua of Central America, pre-Columbian
artifacts from South America, the Byzantine Empire, and ancient Greece. In chapter 1,
E Richard Sorenson discusses Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, more a philosophical science
than a transcendental religion, in which consciousness occupies the place of suprem-
acy. Over the centuries, curricula were developed in which students of Tantra could
focus their attention en masse on symbolic representations of crucial states of aware-
ness. Eventually, students would find it easier to enter levels of consciousness subtler
than those dominated by the ordinary sense of their own bodies, by verbal modes of
understanding, and finally by the conditions imposed by their own evolutionary and
historical background. Edith L. B. Turner’s chapter—chapter 2—questions the limita-
tions of current assumptions made by most scholars working in the anthropology of
religion. Such limitations can be overcome by recognizing human situations that in-
clude the existence of soul and spirit, situations in which direct experiences are vali-
dated through their shared nature within a community.
In chapter 3, James Maffie describes Meso-American Nahua ontology, which consists
of a unique set of metaphysical claims. Nahua ontology is monistic, holding that only
one reality, teotl, exists. Teotl is the self-generating and self-transmuting sacred force
or energy that created—as well as that which continually recreates, generates, and
permeates—the universe. Consciousness and matter are simply two aspects of teotl
and hence ultimately identical with it. In chapter 4, Armand J. Labbé gives interpretive
context and meaning to a heretofore little deciphered body of pre-Columbian art, by
viewing this art against a large body of ethnographic data relevant to indigenous con-
cepts of soul and neotropical shamanism. This artwork can be resynthesized into a co-
hesive, interpretive model that identifies and differentiates four core themes, namely,
shamanic empowerment, shape-shifting, shamanic soul flight, and soul loss and cap-
ture. What emerges is an organized view of indigenous concepts of soul and their
embeddedness in indigenous accounts of consciousness.
Antoine Courban’s chapter—chapter 5—highlights some key changes in the anthro-
pological dualistic paradigm of late antiquity, and their effect on medical practice in
xxiv Stanley Krippner

the Byzantine culture. Courban outlines the transition from dualism to monistic
thought, highlights the emergence of some significant nondualistic thinkers, and elab-
orates on the developments of critical issues throughout the history of the Eastern
Roman Empire. Its emerging combination of Latin legalism, Hellenic intellectualism,
and Semitic realism still shapes contemporary concepts used in consciousness studies.
In chapter 6, Michael Polemis demonstrates how the traditionally philosophical ideal
that unified soul and education ( paideia) lost its appeal and scientific value, and
assesses the ethical consequences of the demise of the soul in philosophy. He con-
cludes by describing the options by which philosophers could rehabilitate the concept
of soul.
Part II of the anthology ventures into modern scientific attempts to translate early
cultural concepts of consciousness into current theories of nature. Starting with a bio-
logical model to account for the occurrence of symbolic language (and with that, the
advent of abstract sentience), and with neurophysiological contributions into the
workings of neural nets, the project continues with a purely mathematical mapping
of relational activities of material bodies. Such interactivity is then explored in the con-
text of humanistic medicine, and all previous perspectives are now synthesized and
included in a scientific model for a unified theory that is outlined in the two conclud-
ing chapters of this section. In chapter 7, Hubert Markl focuses on the ontology of
mind, proposing that its diversity may have evolved by the process of genetic variation
and natural selection as investigated in evolutionary theory. The linkage between such
a well-prepared brain with a truly linguistic representational system must have pro-
duced more than communicative putty to hold together societal networks. In fact,
step by step it probably enriched the private world of consciousness, that subjective
interactive theater of world models in which an individual could preenact and reenact
games in order to adapt better to the complex social reality where it actually had to
perform in a public, shared conscious world. In chapter 8, Mircea Steriade asks if spe-
cific neuronal types generate consciousness. The mechanisms behind the emergence of
subjectivity are hidden, and recordings of identified neuronal types cannot be system-
atically made in humans. Steriade asserts the impossibility of simultaneous access to
various neuronal types belonging to all structures that organize conscious processes in
a concerted way, casting doubt on overenthusiastic scenarios that are not realistic.
They are of little use to experimental designs and may have undesirable implications
for the epistemology of consciousness.
The chapter by Pavel B. Ivanov—chapter 9—outlines an integrative study of con-
sciousness, considering that the ‘‘material’’ and the ‘‘ideal’’ are two aspects of the
same reality. He suggests that consciousness arises as a form of reflection superior to in-
animate existence and life, and that the conscious subject is the most universal form of
mediating relations between material bodies. Social and cultural factors shape the con-
scious behavior of individuals through their nonorganic bodies, and the specificity of
Introduction xxv

organic and neural processes in humans is thus determined by their cultural environ-
ment. In chapter 10, David J. Hufford observes that the belief that disembodied spirits
interact with humankind perseveres through all cultures and through history into the
modern world. The occasions for their interaction vary from culture to culture, al-
though there are recognizable patterns of belief that are practically universal. Spirit be-
lief encompasses a broad range, from theological ideas about God and the fate of
human souls to beliefs concerning angels, jinn, and demons. Even in the Buddhist tra-
ditions that are frequently said to be atheistic and do not conceptualize the existence
of ‘‘souls,’’ the concepts of karma and reincarnation imply what is referred to in
English as ‘‘soul’’ or ‘‘spirit.’’ These beliefs are supported by a variety of human experi-
ences, ranging from mystical visions to the visits from deceased loved ones often
reported by the bereaved. The modern worldview has suppressed the open discussion
of spirit experiences, creating the false impression that healthy and sophisticated per-
sons do not have such experiences. The result is a cultural construction in which some
of the most powerful and common experiential reasons for spiritual belief are assumed
to be absent in the modern, ‘‘disenchanted’’ world.
In chapter 11, Mariela Szirko notes that cerebral biophysics is not an exception to
established laws of physics applicable to all other occurrences of condensed matter:
brains, too, include microphysical components in their tissue that move at close to
light-speed. The critical question, one often ignored, is if and how such motions bring
about physiological effects and how this relates to psychological realms. Szirko
describes the work of neuroscientists in Argentina, dating back to the eighteenth cen-
tury, and how it has focused on ‘‘electroneurobiology.’’ This approach, which appears
to have been especially suitable for revealing any such effects, is based on assuming the
uncoupling pathologies that disconnect persons from their circumstances, sharing
with sleep and the variations of inattention the common mechanism of changes in a
physiological time dilation. This is a relativistic effect of motion from the tissue’s
microphysical components, and is physiologically operated through coupling with
the electroneurobiological states of that tissue. Szirko argues that these findings are of
value to neurobiologists, psychophysiologists, humanists working on brain-mind
issues, as well as to scientists investigating biological dynamical systems, biophysics,
mathematical biology, computer biology, and molecular biology. In chapter 12, Mario
Crocco begins his chapter by observing that conventional wisdom holds that science
cannot discover or describe any intrinsic, noninstrumental value. Research in a broader
perspective, however, indicates that this may not be the case. Crocco casts a wide net
to counter conventional wisdom, including ‘‘astrophysical-biospheric evolution.’’ This
process has been functionalized and can be used as a means to afford responsibility to
mind-possessing living creatures. In science’s grand picture of reality, therefore, natural
science’s aspiration of ‘‘naturalizing the minds’ depiction’’ does not clash with the
humanities’ recognition of intrinsic value in persons.
xxvi Stanley Krippner

Part III focuses on people’s experience of their existence, using examples from differ-
ent traditions and disciplines (Indian psychology, existentialism, philosophical real-
ism, Japanese Buddhism, African communalism, Hindu vibhuti phenomena, sentient
intellection, and modern psychiatry). In chapter 13, Matthijs Cornelissen reminds his
readers that Sri Aurobindo saw evolution primarily as an ongoing evolution of con-
sciousness, holding that the human mind represents much too imperfect a type of
consciousness to be the final resting point of nature. Aurobindo’s Vedantic perspective
holds that consciousness is pervasive throughout reality and that it manifests as a
range of ever-higher gradations of being. Within the Vedic tradition, ordinary human
mentality is considered to be ego-bound and dependent on the physical senses. Above
it there is the unitary Higher Mind of self-revealed wisdom, the Illumined Mind
where truths are seen rather than thought, the plane of the Intuitive Mind where
truth is inevitable and perfect, and finally the cosmic Overmind, comprehensive, all-
encompassing. But in all these planes, however far beyond our ordinary mentality,
there is still a trace of division, the possibility of discord and disharmony. One has to
rise above all of them to find a truly Gnostic consciousness, intrinsically harmonious,
perfect, one with the divine consciousness that upholds the universe. Cornelissen goes
on to compare Aurobindo’s evolutionary conceptualization to concepts more com-
monly encountered in contemporary consciousness studies, discussing various onto-
logical and epistemological questions arising out of this comparison. In chapter 14,
Julia Watkin examines the question of consciousness from the point of view of existen-
tial philosophy. Whereas many approach the topic through a clinical consideration of
consciousness as an object, existentialism makes personal existence (or human subjec-
tivity) its point of departure. Consciousness and the self are not seen as already pres-
ent, waiting to be investigated. Instead, personal existence is shown to have a
formative role in the development of consciousness and the self. The writings of Søren
Kierkegaard are explored, since he was an important pioneer who stressed the impor-
tance of viewing the self from a subjective angle. Kierkegaard assumed the existence of
an eternal power outside the universe, ruling its workings and destiny. Thus, for him,
there was a distinction between the spheres of temporality and eternity. On the basis
of this dual perspective, he built his own description of the individual as a spiritual be-
ing. It follows that people can become aware of possibility, choice, and action in rela-
tion to ideals and values. Kierkegaard’s concept of human objectivity can be contrasted
with his understanding of objective truth. He made a careful distinction between what
can be known and what must be believed.
In chapter 15, Karim Akerma pays special attention to the philosophies of Nicolai
Hartmann and Hans Jonas, and their focus on organismic existence. For them con-
sciousness is not spatial; it differs from the spatiotemporal objects and processes that
surround sentient beings in their physical, chemical, and biological reality. In spite
Introduction xxvii

of its lacking spatiality, consciousness is bound to a spatial organismic existence on

which it exerts influence and by which it is affected. This view from the organism, with
its stress on metabolism and motility—and ultimately, organismic transcendence—
neither explains consciousness nor reduces it to the organismic level. Akerma warns
his readers that they must be careful not to biologize consciousness. In chapter 16, Gra-
ham Parkes described the Japanese ‘‘dry landscape’’ (karesansui) garden, which consists
primarily of rocks arranged in a context of gravel or moss, as an art form. Traditional
Japanese thought regarded rocks not as inanimate lumps of matter, but rather as dense
configurations of the cosmic energies (qi) that animate the entire world. According to
such philosophers as Kûkai and Dôgen, landscapes when properly perceived turn out
to be the body of the cosmic Buddha proclaiming the Buddhist teachings through
voice and inscription. These ideas have impacted Parkes’s ontology of human con-
sciousness, one that understands it not as independent of inanimate matter, but rather
as a field of energies on a continuum with the energies of rocks and stone.
In chapter 17, Heinz Kimmerle describes common themes in African philosophy, in
which the concept of person is not primarily related to mind-brain issues, but rather to
everyday language, especially to proverbs and oral traditions. In this chapter two philo-
sophical systems from East Africa and West Africa are presented, which although ex-
tremely different, do not differ from the common philosophical themes in African
thought. Joseph M. Nyasani, describing one of these systems, refers to the idea of com-
munalism as it was coined in the statements of some major political leaders during the
struggle for independence from colonial rule. The higher value of the community
above the individual person in this context was worked out philosophically by Maurice
Tshiamalenga Ntumba. The confrontation of the African ‘‘Philosophy of We’’ with the
Western ‘‘Philosophy of I,’’ as worked out by Ntumba and Nyasani, was criticized by
Kwame Gyekye, who insisted that African thought is characterized by a striving for a
balance of community and person. He is also critical of the practice of listening to the
spirits of one’s ancestors. Instead, Ntumba proposed a moderate communitarianism
as the best solution to the question as to whether the community or the individual
person should be taken as the higher value. The following chapter by Erlendur
Haraldsson—chapter 18—observes that charismatic religious personalities often gain a
following in India, particularly if they obtain a reputation of possessing ‘‘divine’’
powers. Sathya Sai Baba is such a charismatic religious leader whose movement places
strong emphasis on devotion to God and to Sai Baba himself, whom most devotees
venerate as an avatar (a reincarnation of some aspect of God). His followers emphasize
service to others, observing traditional religious values, and sponsoring educational
opportunities for young people. Sai Baba’s reputation of performing wondrous feats,
which date back to his youth when he claimed to be the incarnation of Sri Sai Baba of
Shirdi, has been important for the immense growth of his movement. There are also
xxviii Stanley Krippner

numerous reports of phenomena occurring in faraway places, such as anomalous

appearances of vibhuti ash and unexplained fragrances in shrine rooms of devotees, as
well as Sai Baba’s appearance in distant places to devotees while they are awake or even
while dreaming. Such phenomena are of great interest to the psychology and sociology
of religion and provide significant data for any theory about human consciousness.
Thomas B. Fowler’s chapter—chapter 19—discusses the philosophy of Xavier Zubiri,
who saw the search for reality as a never-ending quest. Zubiri systematically re-
examines the basis for human knowledge, shifting the role of consciousness from the
‘‘center of activity’’ to that of ‘‘actuality,’’ the sense of direct contact with reality that
people experience in their perception of the world. Zubiri sees consciousness as one as-
pect of human intelligence, which puts them into contact with reality, at least in part.
Reality is fundamentally ‘‘open,’’ and not fully amenable to any human conceptualiza-
tion. In chapter 20, Thomas Szasz reckons that the term consciousness is problematic
but can be equated with an organism’s awareness of and attention to its surroundings.
From this vantage point, Szasz focuses on language and responsibility, making people
moral agents rather than organisms shaped by deterministic forces. For him, human
nature, of which moral agency is a critical aspect, resides partly in nature and partly
in the social environment. Christian de Quincey’s provocative epilogue maintains
that reason is not monolithic and that the scientific study of consciousness needs to
employ a wide range of procedures, reports, and epistemologies.
This collection of essays expands the current study of consciousness into perspec-
tives that span both space and time. They remind the reader that consciousness is
often described in ways that consist of both experience and reflections on that experi-
ence. This reflection amplifies an existing sense of being both agent and experiencer,
permitting an individual to construct a picture of that individual’s own situation as
well as the corresponding experiences of others’ realities. These perspectives are at vari-
ance with more popular models such as those arguing that human beings are function-
ally organized information-processing systems and that there is no need to infer any
‘‘nonphysical’’ aspects of the process. For these writers, there is no world of subjective
experience; all that actually exists is a brain, engaged in processing information. And
some of the most distinguished adherents to this notion claim that there is no basic
difference between the conscious activity of human beings and what goes on in a com-
puter. It is no wonder that Anthony Freeman sees consciousness studies as the ‘‘impos-
sible’’ science because of its complexity and subjectivity. However, this compendium
of provocative essays demonstrates that the study of consciousness is truly interdisci-
plinary. It also reminds us that, like other social constructs, ‘‘consciousness’’ is simply
an attempt by members of a social group to describe, explain, or otherwise account for
the world in which they live. This collection of essays will stimulate readers to ponder
both the ‘‘hard’’ and ‘‘easy’’ questions of consciousness and, in so doing, to enrich
their own self-awareness, their own life intentions, and their own enjoyment of the
Introduction xxix

wonders brought to them by the ineffable phenomenon of consciousness and its

various components.


James, William (1958). The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Mentor Books.

Natsoulas, Thomas (1992). ‘‘The Concept of Consciousness, 3. The Awareness Meaning,’’ Journal
for the Theory of Social Research Vol. 22, pp. 199–223.
I Expanding the Ontological Matrix
Part I brings together a variety of active percipient modalities that have evolved by cog-
nitive systems along their own historical and cultural pathways. The perspectives are
suggestive of monistic theories in which the operative features of conscious action,
awareness, and agency shape sentience, emotive intelligence, and sensory knowledge
alike. Since knowledge about consciousness requires appropriate means to communi-
cate such knowledge, anthropological records provide valuable insight into culturally
accepted modalities for such communication.
The chapters are best viewed from a perspective of behavioral analysis and without
imposing methodological frames. In fact, the artwork in chapter 1 can deliver an emo-
tive and sensory account of its cognitive content. After quickly glancing at all of the
pictures to create a disposition for judgment, look again. Notice how the sequence of
the pictures tells a story by itself. Then, stay with each image until you see the phe-
nomenon described in its caption. The surrounding text in the chapter will provide
further cognitive clues.
Chapters 2 through 4 also allow for emotive comprehension of their content, pro-
vided that the metaphorical use of core terminology does not trigger cognitive oppo-
sition but, instead, invokes appreciation of emotive wording to address ontological
components of reality that today are typically placed in the cognitive domain of tech-
nology and science. Chapters 5 and 6 offer insightful accounts of how societal variables
can affect such interpretation of terminology.
It goes without saying that, above and beyond these heuristic functions for the an-
thology, each of the chapters stands on its own and presents a gem of scholarship and
interpretation for its respective fieldwork.
1 The Emptying of Ontology: The Tibetan Tantric View

E Richard Sorenson


More philosophy and science than religion, Tibetan Tantric Buddhism has no deity to which
beings are held accountable.1 Consciousness is held to be supreme. Intelligence trumps doctrinal
authority. Intellectual coercion is abhorred. Reasoned challenges to established views trigger
interest rather than denunciation. Instead of being expected to answer to a god, human beings are
considered to be rather like one. And so, after Buddha passed away, Buddhist philosophy evolved
in an atmosphere sufficiently tolerant of change and difference to sustain interest in (and respect
for) all well-stated thoughts. Divergent intellectual currents had latitude to form without duress
within established schools and gain recognition as schools themselves merely by speaking well.
And so, for a thousand years after Buddha’s death, words describing observations of existence
kept expanding into new areas of understanding with ever more tightly honed methods of
rational inquiry. The new insights posed new questions, which led to further insights and so
on—not unlike the way Western science grew. Eventually increasingly rigorous analysis of
verbalized phenomena disclosed realms of consciousness subtler than subject-object thinking—
and therefore beyond logical purview (since logic requires established categories to analyze).
Logic was then simply moved enough to the side to make room for an experiential type of
validation beyond the realm of words. Early explorers of these unarticulable realms soon noticed
they were touching onto much the same things. A stable common realness emerged that was
recognizable by all those who peered beyond the level of verbality. Since the ‘‘actuality’’ they
saw was by its nature verbally indescribable, techniques of allusion and evocation were devised
that might position others to touch onto these realms beyond the speakable, and therefore
beyond ontology. Though such entree requires rapport and candid openness between students
and teachers, curricula were eventually devised that focus attention en masse on symbolic
representations of these awareness states. This prepares students to more easily recognize the
actual states when confronted with them. Such recognition is ephemeral at first. Practice,
however, brings increasing clarity as domination of mentality by subject-object thinking and
ego-oriented emotions becomes weaker. The prologue below provides a glimpse of the kind of
life supported by such a philosophy. The epilogue shows more of that way of life and the impact
of modernity on it. Sandwiched between these two views is the story of how the written
philosophy came into being after the Buddha’s death.
6 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.1
Young Tibetan novices clustered on an outdoor platform (Drepung Monastery, 1979).


I had no inkling of the philosophy when I first encountered Tibetan monasteries in the
1960s. Exotic sounds and sights, not philosophy, were what made me peer inside.
Then the seeming paradox of novices peacefully introspective while outwardly alert
and exploratory snared my curiosity. With a professional focus on child development,
I had seen similar traits emerge from the socio-tactility of preconquest infant nurture.
But what was it that made them gravitate to subtle physical contact with their con-
freres while tangentially poking individual attention on some divergent interest—
which would without ado subtly infiltrate the group’s general sensibility (figure 1.1)?
After many years of historical inquiry just such a trait could also be seen establishing
the path on which the written Tibetan philosophy arose and then advanced.2
It also enabled monasteries to evolve with different ambiences, even while all dedi-
catedly relied on the same transcribed words of Buddha (sutra) and the same basic
ethics (vinaya). In one monastery, novices propelled themselves into each new day
with dazzling displays of kinetic zeal to greet whatever novelty might pass their way
The Emptying of Ontology 7

Figure 1.2a
A novice memorizes his particular
studies while subconsciously harmo-
nizing his recitation sounds with those
of all the others to produce ever-chang-
ing collective sonorities, cadences,
nuances, and rhythms (Gyudmed
Monastery, 1983). Figure 1.2b
A senior monk takes advantage of this trait to aug-
ment the evocative power of a Tantric ritual
(Gyudmed Monastery, 1983).

that day or be concocted on the spot. Even during formal study sessions, a hum of ex-
ploratory frolicking was always there. They focused on learning by conjoining individ-
ual grasps of whatever the world around had to offer them.
A few kilometers up the hill another monastery was so starkly different it seemed
another world. What stood out there was an atmosphere of evocative quiet gentleness,
heart-catching harmonies and rhythms floating in the air as each novice’s individual
memory recitation coalesced harmonically and rhythmically with all the others (even
though they were reciting different texts). Never mind that the content was not the
same. And never mind that each novice’s attention was riveted on the content he was
memorizing, concentrationwise oblivious from the others (figure 1.2a). As his vocaliza-
tion touched on those emerging from the various dispersed verandas, nooks, crannies,
and open spaces, it would jockey about a bit, bounce off sounds already there, and
then merge into, and somewhat alter, the larger harmonic whole. A conjoint ever-
changing symphony then spread out across the monastic precincts. When these same
novices attended the most sophisticated rituals of their monastery, they similarly
instinctively harmonized with its subtle and instructive tonal and rhythmic nuances
(figure 1.2b). Perhaps it should not be surprising that this monastery’s rituals have
8 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.3
This debating aggregation at Gaden Monastery has attracted students of different ages desiring to
collectively focus their individual esprit and sensibility on the subject as it evolves (Gaden-Shartse
Monastery, 1977).

long been honored for the insights to which their challenging and subtly sophisticated
sonorities lead.
Thirty miles to west the monastic setting was again quite different (figure 1.3). Rois-
terousness was the first impression. A clamorous din of insistent voices set to stylized
leaps and prances overwhelmed the atmosphere as young monks sought truth en masse
by a spirited din of animated reasoning accompanied by a stylized athletics. Though
such differences startled me, senior monks were quite blasé. They considered all such
expressions as valid introductions to the deeper unarticulable essences. Such leeway
gave opportunities for contrastive local thinking and new philosophical insights to
take shape from an already-established cultural tendency that fostered both individua-
tion and collective effort. A contrapuntal élan of individuality and solidarity emerged
that absorbed rather than dispelled differences. Reasoning was honored as the supreme
The Emptying of Ontology 9

Figure 1.4
An outstanding student from Gaden Monastic University engages the Abbot of famous Tashi-
lumpo (a sister monastery) in a dialectic exercise that emerged spontaneously from a point of philo-
sophical interest raised by the student. They behave as equals in a formal discourse in which
reasoned challenges to any presented view are considered solely on their rational merits, where
logic (not rank) is the arbiter (Tashihumpo Monastery, 1977).

authority, and verbal incompatibilities were resolved by philosophical debate (figure

Though this basic trait may have been already set before the coming of the Buddha,
it is most clearly discernible during the period in which written Buddhist philosophy
emerged after the Buddha’s death. Indeed it was so flexible that it made boundaries
between the emerging Buddhist schools hard to fix. Philosophical identities only be-
came clear at centers. Between them lay fuzzy regions in various degrees of flux. In
10 E Richard Sorenson

this historical presentation, I will move from one clear center of definable identity to
the next, leaving the tangled intellectual transformations in between for a more socio-
logical type of analysis. The advantage of this approach becomes apparent quickly.
When these centers are plotted along that fertile intellectual spectrum that lies be-
tween idealism and realism, a dramatic ontological odyssey comes into view, one
in which language honed to ever-greater levels of precision ultimately exposes the
limitations of verbal concept and formal logic and thereby empties ontology. The
saga can be presented in various ways; I will do so here according to the three major
schools most clearly identifiable by their basic intellectual foundations: Theravada
(as scholastic inquiry), Mahayana (as rationally justified experiential inquiry), and
Tantrayana (as an esoteric means to plumb nonverbal levels of consciousness). I
begin with Theravada, the intellectual fount to which all the others can ultimately
be traced.


Shortly after the Buddha’s death (c. 480 B.C.), some 500 of his senior followers (arhat)
gathered at Rajgriha (Rajgir), India, to see what might be done to sustain his teachings.
One of the questions taken up was whether to abolish the lesser precepts, which Bud-
dha told his principal disciple, Ananda, could be done. But it was not clear which they
were, since Ananda had not asked before Buddha passed away. This First Buddhist
Council decided to retain them all. The monks then turned to developing textual
guides (Skt: Abhidharma; Pali: Abhidhamma) to Buddhist thought and practice.3 These
were, at first, mainly simple lists of things to do and keep in mind: ethical norms and
daily practices. But they also included efforts to piece together a metaphysics by
which the basic elements of reality (Skt: dharma; Pali: dhamma) could be identified
and understood.

Sthaviravada (Implicit Realism) (c. fourth century B.C.)

The question of precepts did not go away. Indeed it was the major issue at the
Second Buddhist Council a hundred years later in Vaishali, India (c. 380 B.C.). By
that time some monks had taken it on themselves to neglect what they considered
minor precepts. Elder monks accused them of violating basic monastic ethics.4 After
deliberation, the Council elders ruled that all the monastic precepts must be honored
and erring monks should be censured. Differences were then tabled between views
presented in the emerging Abhidharma treatises and the transcribed words of Buddha
(Sutra). A majority took the view that the actual words of Buddha were the real
authority, not the tightly reasoned views expressed in the Abhidharma. A minority
remained loyal to their Abhidharma and called themselves the ‘‘School of Elders’’
(Sthaviravada), continuing their efforts to ascertain and rationalize the basic build-
The Emptying of Ontology 11

ing blocks of reality. They argued that it was clear that these analytic practices were
beneficial in that they diminished a personal sense of selfhood—and therefore the
emotional conflicts that obstructed approaches to enlightenment. Nonetheless, they
retained the same implicit assumption that a verbally understandable external reality

Mahasanghika (Dualistic Realism) (c. fourth century B.C.)

The majority started writing their own Abhidharma to reflect their views and called
themselves the ‘‘Great Community’’ (Mahasanghika).5 Their collectively written Maha-
vastu (‘‘Great Subjects’’) questioned the materialistic realism of the Sthaviravada by
reminding that Buddha had spoken of two different kinds of reality: ‘‘pure things’’
and ‘‘pure thought’’—a dualistic kind of realism. It was the first articulated challenge
to Sthaviravada realism. Several subschools soon emerged.

Supramundane Realism (Lokottaravada) (c. fourth century B.C.) Initially a part of

the Mahasanghika school (and the principal root of the an emerging Sarvastivada
school), the Lokottaravada attained a distinction of their own by arguing that the
mortal Buddha must have been an apparition formed from Buddha consciousness
in order to bring truth to mortals. Their basic text (the early version of the col-
lectively written ‘‘The Great Play of the Buddha’’ (Lalita-vistara)) speaks of the true
Buddha as transcendent (lokottara), from which the name of their school was
derived. In their view only Buddha consciousness has genuine reality; the worldly
‘‘objects’’ perceived by mortals do not. Reality to them was supramundane, though
still conceived as external.

Nominalism (Purvasaila) (c. fourth century B.C.) The Purvasaila, another Mahasan-
ghika offshoot, focused on the lack of any clear evidence that the so-called ultimate
building blocks of the universe (dharma) were any more real than ordinary worldly
objects. Unlike the Lokottaravada, they maintained that nothing can be incontro-
vertibly said to exist other than names. Hence nominalism.

Personhood (Vatsiputriya, Pudgalavada, Sammatiya) (c. third century B.C.) Less

analytically disposed monks were attracted by the commonsense approach of their
respected teacher, Vatsiputra, and his ‘‘doctrine of the soul’’ (Skt: vatslputra-kalpita-
atma-pariksa; Tib: gnas-mahi-bus-bdag-brag-pa). Though they were initially called
Vatsiputriya, they were later referred to as Pudgalavadin for their belief in an inde-
structible personhood ( pudgala). It was self-evident, they said, that sentient beings
are more than just an aggregation of basic constituent qualities (skandha). Actual
personhood must be there too. The idea, however, could not be clearly demon-
strated, and, with its suggestion that there was some kind of individual ‘‘perfected
12 E Richard Sorenson

permanence,’’ contradicted the core Buddhist views of morality and karma. Though
the idea had grassroots appeal and persisted in dispersed locales for centuries, it had
little direct impact on the further development of Buddhist philosophy.

Analytic Realism (Vibhajyavada) (third century B.C.) Meanwhile, the most ardent
Sthaviravada monks came to be called Vibhajyavadin (dissective analysts) for their
sustained analytic approach to reality. To promulgate their views, they sponsored
what they called the Third Buddhist Council (c. 247 B.C., in Pataliputra, India).
Monks with conflicting views were not invited. The council president, Moggaliputta
Tissa, presented a systematic refutation of non-Sthaviravadin views in the famous
‘‘Points of Controversy’’ (Kathavatthu). Not surprisingly, this convocation was not
widely accepted as a genuine Buddhist Council. (A more representative gathering
three centuries later in Kaniska is more generally accepted as the Third Buddhist
Council.) Despite its seeming conservatism, the Vibhajyavadin effort to codify reality
stood on systematic reasoning and sustained a firm and lasting following. Its analytic
realism was magnificently presented in the fifth century A.D. by the famous Thera-
vada scholar, Buddhaghosa, in his ‘‘The Route to Bliss’’ (Visuddhi-magga).

Sarvastivada (Existential Realism) (c. third to first century B.C.)

The strongest of the new schools emerged from monks who took issue with the view
that the dharmas were real only at the time they occurred—that is, only in the present.
Where was the rationale, they asked, for crediting ‘‘objects’’ with realness when they
became unreal the very moment they became real? In their view either everything
exists (sarvamasti) or nothing does. Their nascent ‘‘existential’’ doctrine was systemati-
cally set forth by Katyayaniputra (second century B.C.) in his ‘‘Setting Forth Knowl-
edge’’ (Abhidharma-jnana-prasthana-sastra), which still held that only the external
objects perceived by the senses were real. Vasumitra went a step further. In his ‘‘Basis
of Explanation’’ (Prakarana-pada), he noted that two of the three kinds of dharma—
substantial form (rupa), consciousness (citta), and state of consciousness (caitasika)—
were types of consciousness and not objects of the senses at all. He maintained that
sense of time is caused by the activity of the dharma(s), which provided a needed ratio-
nale for the effect of past actions on the future (as required by karma) and for mem-
ory. Devasarman added to Visumitra’s list of objects independent of the senses in his
‘‘Compendium on Consciousness’’ (Vijnana-kaya). He showed six types of such con-
sciousness: visual (caksu), auditory (srotra), olfactory ( ghrana), gustatory ( jihva), tactile
(kaya), and general sensibility (mana). In this way a sense of existence began intruding
on the original object-oriented reality.
During the course of this intellectual ferment, both the Theravada and Sarvastivada
continued to identify and classify the dharmas. The Theravada produced 174 and the
The Emptying of Ontology 13

Saravastivada 75. Though the Sarvastivada school was large, openly inquisitive, and
intellectually divergent, it is most easily identified by its core philosophy that eternally
existing dharmas are the source of all phenomena. The simplicity appealed to many.
Subschools emerged within the basic Sarvastivada philosophical foundations.

Indirect Realism (Sarvastivada-Vaibhasika) (third to second century B.C.) This sub-

school is most clearly identified with its famous and widely disseminated ‘‘Great
Elucidation’’ (Abhidharma-maha-vibhasa), a collectively written systematic work pre-
sented at what is more generally recognized as the Third Buddhist Council (in
Kaniska). Though it agreed with the basic Sarvastivada position that perceived
objects must exist (on grounds that, if they did not, there would be nothing to be
perceived and therefore no perception). This view challenged Sarvastivada realism
by showing that objects could be known only through the mind. In the Vaibhasika
view, reality was out there but knowledge of it was only indirect.

Representationism (Sarvastivada-Sautrantika) (c. 50 B.C. to 100 A.D.) The Sarvasti-

vada monks who stressed the authority of the Sutras while also stressing logic were
dubbed Sautrantika. They noted that the idea of ‘‘eternal’’ dharmas was inconsistent
with Buddha’s teachings on impermanence. By logical analysis they then showed
that all perceptions are shaped by three basic conditions: (1) the nature and condi-
tion of the perceiving mind, (2) the sensory organs through which objects are per-
ceived, and (3) ancillary conditions such as distance, intensity, form, and motion.
Therefore, they claimed, perception of dharmas was nothing more than mental re-
construction, beyond which nothing can really be perceived. According to this rea-
soning there was no way to know whether any perceptions actually correspond to
any dharmas. Thus, any reality that might exist was, in their view, entirely unknow-
able. All that could unequivocally be said to exist, according to their analysis, were
mental images representing the dharma. They then reasoned that past dharmas do
not exist simply because they are gone, that future dharmas do not exist because
they have not yet come, and, as for present dharmas, they asked how they could rea-
sonably be said to have true existence when the instant they appeared they disap-
peared. By presenting these views in the accepted logic of the day, this school dealt
a devastating blow to the solidity of realism and set a philosophical stage for the
profound transformation of Buddhist thought soon to come, one that had been
bubbling quietly in the background of various realism-oriented schools—that is,
Mahayana. But not before a sally into the idea that nothing is real.

Illusionism (Sautrantika-Satyasiddhi) (third century A.D.) The Sautrantika-Satyasiddhi

rejected the realism component of Sarvastivada, which put them on the cusp
14 E Richard Sorenson

between Theravada and Mahayana; they departed from realism with a logical analy-
sis that denied the ontological reality of objects. In his ‘‘Thesis on True Attainment’’
(Satyasiddhi-sastra), Harivarman demonstrated that there was no clear evidence that
an external world of objects can even be inferred. In the absence of such a basis,
he maintained that objects and names are no more than illusions. Humans, he said,
only imagine objects to be real because they are by human nature predisposed to see
themselves as individuals. That predisposition, he claimed, gives them the false impres-
sion of being surrounded by separate objects. The response to that precarious position
was Mahayana.


In the second century A.D., the idealism currents that had been cropping up for some
time ignited an explosion of intellectual inquiry that would, by the seventh century,
reconcile realism with idealism and existential experience with scholastic reasoning.
During this period, increasingly well-honed techniques of rational inquiry were thrust
with increasing rigor into personal experiences that were too compelling to be dis-
regarded. As personal experience and insights became ontologically respectable, the
result was a shift of intellectual attention from ‘‘reality’’ to ‘‘existence.’’ When this
intellectual movement was later seen for what it had done, it was called Mahayana
(‘‘Great Path’’) in recognition of the broad benefits to humanity produced by its mar-
riage of ineffable experience with public reasoning.

Precursors (Prajnaparamita, Tib. Phar-byin-mdo) (second and first centuries

Though the radical ontological revision wrought by Mahayana had precursors in the
Mahasanghika, Sarvastivada, and Sautrantika schools, its most direct antecedents were
the early Prajnaparamita writings that had long been drawing quiet interest in various
intellectually tolerant realism-oriented schools. These writings, composed largely by
unknown authors at unknown dates, shifted attention from ‘‘elements of reality’’ to
‘‘existence,’’ thereby freeing philosophical thought from simple realism.
The term prajnaparamita combines prajna (profound wisdom) with paramita (perfec-
tion of awareness). Because no central canon presents a central Prajnaparamita view,
the movement is not usually called a school. School or not, its views profoundly influ-
enced the development of Buddhist philosophy from the second century onward. The
‘‘Perfection of Awareness Sutras’’ (Prajnaparamita-sutra) attributed to Buddha Sakya-
muni were the principal philosophical precursors of Mahayana in that they turned at-
tention away from the nature of reality and onto the nature of consciousness. Tibetans
speak of it as ‘‘wisdom switched to the other side’’ (i.e., from objects to the conscious-
ness that perceives objects).
The Emptying of Ontology 15

Initial Philosophy (Madhyamika) (second to third century A.D.)

Ontologically Madhyamika (literally ‘‘The Middle Way’’) stands between the Sarvasti-
vada view that all is real and an emerging Yogacara view that all is consciousness.
Nagarjuna produced its ontological foundations in a series of intricately reasoned texts
in which the ultimate vacuity of concepts was impeccably demonstrated by exhaustive
logic.7, 8 The name of the school emerged from his influential and widely praised ‘‘The
Root of the Middle Way to Wisdom’’ (Mula-madhyamika-karika).
This dramatic departure from realism spawned repeated attempts to refute. All were
logically rebutted in Nagarjuna’s famous ‘‘Deflecting Objections’’ (Vigra-havya-vartani),
in which he repeatedly demonstrated the absence of any logical basis for assuming the
self-existence of subjects or objects. He advanced his sensational treatise by repeated
reductio ad absurdum demonstrations, so impeccably presented, that no subject-object
concepts withstood his conclusion that objective reality was ontological nonsense.9
This posed troublesome questions about the conceptual realities that had been so care-
fully set forth analytically in the Abhidharma literature. To fill the ontological waste-
land Nagarjuna had created, his student Aryadeva showed that experiential aspects of
consciousness could be cognized through concentrated introspective analysis. Then
Asvaghosa, in his short but widely influential verse work, ‘‘The Accomplishments of
Buddha Sakyamuni’’ (Buddha-carita), demonstrated compassional foundations underly-
ing consciousness during prajnaparamita meditations.10
While Nagarjuna was throwing verbal concepts to the winds, the prajnaparamita
side of Madhyamika was plumbing experienced states of consciousness not reduc-
ible to words. This set a stage on which pragmatic tests for truth could start taking
shape. A flurry of philosophical progress took place on this stage from the second
to sixth centuries A.D. as scholars grappled with such postrealism currents as
nihilism, pragmatism, phenomenalism, and idealism. Compassion nibbled at the heels
of all.

Nihilism To many, Nagarjuna’s approach appeared nihilistic. He had shown by im-

peccable reductio ad absurdum logic that all conceptual views could be reduced
to self-contradiction and absurdity.11 Not a single one survived—not even the
Madhyamika core concept of emptiness (which, when considered as an object, could
be reduced to absurdity just like any other object). Such basic concepts as motion
and time were similarly reduced to nonsense—that is, motion cannot occur because,
if there is nothing real to move, there can be no movement. Time does not exist be-
cause the past is always gone, the future is never here, and the present never exists
because the very instant it arrives it vanishes. Even at the most elementary level of
conceptualization, Nagarjuna showed all concepts to be meaningless—for exam-
ple, simple abstract A and B must either be different or identical. If identical, there
is no relationship because there is no difference. If different, there is no relationship,
16 E Richard Sorenson

because they have nothing in common to relate. With no way to relate, neither
can be shown to exist. He employed all the established modes of argument of the
day: tetralemma structured logic, prasanga consequential logic, nyaya syllogism, and
dialectics to show that all linguistic statements can be reduced to nonsense. Not
a single metaphysical concept was left untouched, including such basic ones as
existence-nonexistence, permanence-impermanence, reality-nonreality. When he
finished, concepts, as a genre, had been shorn of demonstrable existence by the
most rigorous logic then available. To those for whom verbal concepts lay at the
core of meaning, it was nihilism pure and simple. But Nagarjuna did not consider
what he had done to be nihilism. Though he had deobjectivized the universe by
logical analysis, he had not actually denied existence. He believed that objects, de-
spite their logical nonexistence, still possessed pragmatic usefulness by being used
to reveal true existence.

Pragmatism To counter the logical nihilistic dilemma, Nagarjuna introduced his

‘‘twofold truth’’—a linking of the particularism of conceptual truth (samvrtisatya) to
transcendental truth ( paramarthasatya). While this sidestepped nihilism, it left logi-
cians puzzled. To them it was not logically possible to consider concepts a type of
truth after the validity of all concepts had been destroyed. In his ‘‘The Root of the
Middle Way to Wisdom’’ (Mula-madhyamaka-karika), Nagarjuna showed that the
significance of his twofold truth lay in its ability to provide a pragmatic nexus
between conceptual and ultimate truths. Concepts, he argued, can be considered
true if they are stepping-stones to truth. That is, truth inheres in them by virtue of
their pragmatic ability to lead one to truth. They partake of truth just as the truth
of Buddha’s words lay in their ability to lead beings to universal truth. Though
Nagarjuna introduced the idea of pragmatic truth, it was left to later intellectual
movements to provide greater clarity. Nonetheless, Nagarjuna’s twofold truth
was the first clear statement linking concepts to ultimate truth through pragmatic

Phenomenalism Consideration of phenomena proceeded through three phases of

inquiry: perception, phenomena, and empirical experience.

Perceptual Phenomenalism (Madhyamika-Sautrantika) (fourth to fifth century) After

Vasubandhu wrote his monumental Sarvastivada work, Abhidharma-kosa, he aban-
doned the Sarvastivada notion of an external world that he had so masterfully
expounded there. With his skills in logic, he gravitated to the Sautrantika school,
within whose intellectual surroundings he produced his ‘‘Explanation of Mai-
treya’s Mahayana-sutra-lamkara-vyakya.’’ He explained there that objects have no
The Emptying of Ontology 17

independent natures of their own because they depend on chains of causes. Fi-
nally, in his classic tome, ‘‘Establishment of Cognitions Only’’ (Vijnnapti-matrata-
siddhi-sastra), he showed that it was illogical to claim external objects as anything
more than phenomena produced by consciousness, since they depend entirely on
three basic aspects of mind: (1) the nature and condition of the perceiving mind,
(2) the sensory organs through which objects are perceived, and (3) impinging
conditions, such as distance, brightness, form, and motion. Since a change in any
of these alters perception, he argued that it is impossible to say that an object is
anything more than a mental image.
Dignaga (c. 480–540) tightened this train of thought in his ‘‘Precise Clarification
of Refined Cognition’’ (Pramana-samuccaya). In this widely admired work he first
showed that perception emerges solely through the five senses. Having thus estab-
lished raw sensation as the basis of perception, he concluded that the creation of
concepts from raw sensation must reside somewhere else in mind. In our sophisti-
cated age this may seem quite obvious. At the time, however, it was revolutionary
in that it clearly divorced external reality (as sensation) from logic (as reason) and
bestowed on perception the ‘‘reality-constructing’’ role. This went beyond basic
Madhyamika thinking by making logic a product of idealism.

Conceptual Phenomenalism (Prasangika-sautrantika) (fifth century) This subschool

maintained faith in the logical consequences ( prasanga) of reasoned argument.
Since Nagarjuna had irrefutably shown by reductio ad absurdum that all con-
cepts are reducible to nonsense, they deemed it useless to adopt any particular
stated view. Yet their Sautrantika background committed them to the words of
Buddha. In this somewhat contradictory situation, the renowned Prasangika
scholar Buddhapalita (c. 480–540), in his ‘‘Commentary on [Nagarjuna’s] ‘Middle
Way’ ’’ (Buddhapalita-mula-madhyamika-vrtti), pointed out that the concept of
cyclical existence had been so well established by Buddha and subsequent philo-
sophers that it could not be just a vacuous illusion. Some kind of reality must
be there, even if logic could not show it. Then he offered his conclusion that
logic cannot do so because it is only able to reveal an absence of truth, not its
The most famous scholar of this school, Candrakirti (c. 580–650), strengthened
this line of reasoning in his ‘‘Clear Words on [Nagarjuna’s] Middle Way’’
(Mula-madhyamaka-vrtti-prasanga-pada). First, he stated that the problem bedevil-
ing Nagarjuna’s twofold truth was not that he had not paid sufficient attention
to logic (as some were claiming) but rather that logic was not qualified to deal
with any truths except the kind that related concepts to each other. Logic required
objective entities just to exist. Without them logic had no way to operate. That
18 E Richard Sorenson

is why, he claimed, Nagarjuna could use logic to demonstrate the nonexistence of

concepts but could not use it to deny or reveal other types of truths. The only kind
of truth concepts could possibly possess would have to lie in mental states that
lead to truth. He cited six such mental states: (1) generosity (dana), (2) moral
conduct (sila), (3) patient forbearance (ksanti), (4) moral enthusiasm (virya), (5)
concentrated mental introspection (either dhyana or samadhi), and (6) wisdom
( prajna). Within these states of consciousness, he argued, truth inheres be-
cause they lead to the ultimate truth expounded by Buddha. To these six states,
Santideva, a seventh-century Prasangika logician and Tantric practitioner, added
‘‘compassion-generated action’’ in two of Mahayana’s most revered works, his
‘‘Outline of Instruction’’ (Shiksa-samuccaya-karika) and ‘‘Complete Teachings on
the Bodhisattva Way’’ (Bodhicarya-vatara). They showed the crucial role played by
compassion in Buddha’s teachings and maintained that compassion was the root
truth on which all conceptual paths to truth depend.

Experiential Phenomenalism (Svatantrika-Madhyamika) (sixth century) Bhavaviveka

(c. 500–570), in his ‘‘Essence of Madhyamika’’ (Madhyamika-hrdaya-vrtti-tarkajvala),
argues that logically demonstrating that objects and concepts do not exist tells us
nothing about whether they do exist. All that it tells us, he said, is that objects and
subjects have no inherent existence of their own. Its says nothing about whether
phenomena exist. In his ‘‘Wisdom Lamp’’ (Prajna-pradipa-mula-madhyamika-vrtti),
he asserted that only in the context of empirical inference does logic tell us any-
thing about existence. That is, it can tell us that something has to be there simply
because we do in fact perceive, and, more importantly, it can tell us that phenom-
ena are experienced in mind without first having been rationally established
or causally linked to other phenomena. So perceptions must have some self-
existence. And he pooh-poohed Prasangika logic by showing that its ‘‘proof’’ of
the nonexistence of subjects and objects requires first recognizing the existence
of subjects and objects, which he showed to be a self-destroying logical contradic-
tion. Finally he criticized Candrakirti for paying insufficient attention to the expe-
riential side of Madhyamika (to which Candrakirti replied that Bhavaviveka was
not paying enough attention to logic)—an unfortunate exchange since their
thinking pursued similar lines. It did however illustrate the difference in emphasis
that separated the two subschools.
The outstanding Svatantrika-Madhyamika contribution was its establishment of
inference (svatantra) based on empirical experience as a valid approach to truth.
The school then divided into two different kinds of logically inclined sub-
schools—one concerned mainly with inferential reasoning, the other with reason-
ing applied to experiential inquiry.
The Emptying of Ontology 19

Inferential Reasoning (Svatantrika-Sautantrika) (seventh century) The logic grand-

master of post-Madhyamika thought, Dharmakirti (c. 580–660). His critique of
nyala logic titled ‘‘A Drop of Great Reasoning’’ (Nyala-bindu), amplified Digna-
ga’s separation of conceptualization from sensation by citing three basic types
of conceptual mentality that were beyond the level of mere sensation: (1) rumi-
nation, (2) self-awareness, and (3) the experiential insights that come from men-
tal concentration on consciousness itself. In his ‘‘Discussion of Valid Cognition’’
(Pramana-varttika), Dharmakirti noted that the Madhyamika proof of the intrin-
sic existencelessness of subject and object rested on the argument that because
neither could exist without the other, neither had an existence of its own. How
is it, then, he asked, that we in fact have subjects and objects? Answering his
own question, he claimed they exist because their inherent nonduality makes
them immune to logical analysis. Logical truth and empirical truth, he said,
only appear different because, when consciousness is perceiving phenomena, it
is looking at characteristics, but when it is examining precise truth, it is focusing
on deduction. Though this may seem to many a rather precious sort of reason-
ing, it nonetheless elevated the status of perceived phenomena to ‘‘reality’’
and strengthened the case for the validity of experience. Dharmakirti’s reason-
ing was ultimately adopted by the Gelugpa Order in Tibet as a principal means
for teaching subtler forms of logic to students. Mastery of such logic is required
before they study Tantra.

Experiential Reasoning (Svatantrika-Yogacara) While the Svatantrika-Sautantrika

were working out ways to demonstrate the validity of phenomena inferentially,
the Svatantrika-Yogacara school was examining consciousness itself. Santiraksita
(seventh century), in his ‘‘Essential Principles’’ (Tattva-samgraha) and ‘‘Verses on
the Middle Way’’ (Madhyamika-lankara-karika), showed it was just as unreason-
able to think of everything as consciousness as to believe in the existence of ex-
ternal objects. In his view, both were bogus issues.
With his interests focused on experiential realms rather than logicality, Santir-
aksita simply ignored Candrakirti’s reasoning and spoke beyond it to aspects of
mentality that transcend and transform ordinary consciousness. His student,
Kamalashila, pointed out in his ‘‘Three Stages of Meditation’’ (Havana-krama)
and ‘‘Elucidation of [Santaraksita’s] Essential Principles of Emptiness’’ (Tattva-
samgraha-panjika) that some people proceed toward transcendental knowledge
by being told about it, others by critically pondering the meaning of verbal con-
structs, and still others by concentrating on the bliss associated with fundamen-
tal consciousness. That different people could proceed to transcendental truth in
different ways strengthened the idea that concepts had some pragmatic value.
20 E Richard Sorenson

The Idealistic Revolution (Yogacara), fourth to seventh centuries A.D.

The Yogacara philosophy can most simply be summed up as subjective idealism (Vijna-
navada). Its basic ontological position was that only consciousness is real and that
ideation is the source of all perceived phenomena. Though the origins of such thinking
can be traced back to early comments of the Buddha at the Deer Park in Benares and
then to Sarvastivada reasoning, it was not until the flurry of the prajnaparamita writings
in the first and second centuries that its importance became clear. Its basic ideas were
expressed in Maitreya’s ‘‘Explanation of the Profound Secrets’’ (Samdhi-nirmocana-
sutra), which suggested that objects of perception are products of mind. The idea
was further developed, in the fourth century, in Buddha Sakyamuni’s ‘‘Lanka Sutra‘‘
(Lankavatara-sutra). Though the idea was not quite clearly rationalized in these works,
they did produce Yogacara as a philosophical school in its own right. The new school
took its name from Asanga’s treatise, ‘‘The Experiential Levels of Yogic Practice’’
(Yogacara-bhumi-sastra).12 Compassional aspects were unveiled in his ‘‘Explanation
of the Bodhisattva Stage’’ (Bodhisattva-bhumi). However, the role of compassion was
most fully explained by Asanga’s younger brother, the famous logician, Vasubandhu.
In his ‘‘Establishment of Cognitions Only’’ (Vijnapti-satrata-sindhi-sastra), Vasubandhu
unequivocally declared external objects to be nothing more than concepts and there-
fore nothing more than products of mind. He followed this up with a stunning critique
of basic Madhyamika philosophy in his ‘‘Qualities of the Great Vehicle’’ (Mahayana-
sutra-lamkara-vyakhya). In it he showed that it was not enough to prove objects empty
of self-existence and simply leave it at that. It is natural, he claimed, that when empti-
ness is logically examined, it resolves to a lack of self-existence. But since it is undeni-
able that we do in fact exist, logic in that case produces an absurdity, a conundrum in
which emptiness oscillates endlessly between existing and not existing. Such an absur-
dity, he explained, can only be resolved by considering emptiness and consciousness a
single nondual entity.
With that the established Madhyamika view of emptiness was turned upside down.
To Madhyamika, emptiness has no existence because all objects have no self-existence.
Vasubandhu then reasoned that emptiness existed in the nonduality of subject and
object at a level beyond mere concepts. In this way he made emptiness a function of
mentality (rather than an object) and altered the idea of what was illusory. According
to Madhyamika, the perception of any object (for example, a cup) is illusory and there-
fore untrue. According to Vasubandhu such perceptions are true by virtue of existing
within consciousness. He went on to show, in his ‘‘Treatise on the Three Natures of
Existence’’ (Trisvabhava-nirdesa), how the three forms of intrinsic existence identified
in the early prajnaparamita writings are all aspects of consciousness.13 Though his rea-
soning was subtle, it became the intellectual bombshell that thrust Yogacara into posi-
tion as the new Mahayana philosophy. Though his reasoning provided ontological
legitimacy to experiential inquiry, lurking in the background were the still unex-
The Emptying of Ontology 21

plained inklings that some sort of transcendental reality was more fundamental than
consciousness. Tantrayana would consider it.


As noted, different orientations separate the three main divisions of Buddhist philoso-
phy. Theravada focused primarily on scholastic inquiry; Mahayana analyzed logic and
produced new tools of reason to better understand the relationship between deductive
reasoning and experiential inquiry. That effort then revealed the importance of prag-
matism and compassion. It also provided a philosophical basis that gave impetus to
the Yogacara view that truth resides only within consciousness. That view, in turn,
provided a philosophical toehold and academic respectability for Tantrayana.
The intellectual (as opposed to experiential) precursors of Tantrayana can most visi-
bly be traced to Nagarjuna’s crushing logical demonstration that concepts have no
inherent existence. Until then formal logic applied to language was the basic tool
by which truth was determined. After Nagarjuna carried logic to its self-devastating
extremes, subtler forms of rationality emerged, ones that allowed for examination of
consciousness in relation to the phenomena of experience. While some considered
these developments a way to refute Nagarjuna’s unassailable logical demolition of
concepts, in fact Nagarjuna had not abandoned concepts. In his ‘‘twofold truth’’ he
revealed that concepts could be used as pragmatic tools to lead one to recognition of a
subtler existence. In his view, words, though essenceless in and of themselves, never-
theless can be used as guides to truth and in this sense partake of truth.
Tantric practitioners then devoted themselves to aspects of consciousness beyond
dualistic thought. Though their discoveries were experientially too subtle to be de-
scribed by words, they nonetheless soon noticed that the same ineffable experiences
were shared by other Tantrists. Since these were beyond the types of thought accessible
by words, allusive types of speech (sometimes spoken of as ‘‘helpful winds’’) were con-
trived that pointed people toward these deeper truths. Though differences in these
verbal devices emerged in different Tantric schools, to experienced Tantrists it did not
matter. They simply understood them as differently shaped tools to accomplish the
same end—which was reducing domination of human consciousness by conceptual
thought, in order that the subtler understandings could be accessed.
These Tantrists realized very early that they were exposing the same basic levels of
consciousness that come into view during the process of death. During death they
pass by so swiftly and traumatically that they are only very rarely noticed. The Tantric
techniques they developed, however, enabled these basic levels of consciousness to be
experienced without dying, and at a pace that enables recognition. Because Tantra flirts
with raw emotional power, experienced Tantric tutors proceed cautiously. Their pro-
tective strategies include a rigorous ‘‘intellectual’’ understanding of the nature of
22 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.5
In the most skillful Tantric monasteries, rituals trigger moments of awe even in the very young
and inexperienced (Tarik Sakya Monastery, 1978).

consciousness, fostering a habitude of compassion, cultivating an empathetic relation

with the student, and instilling a firm trust in the procedures. Even just by themselves,
the experiences conveyed by Tantric ritual can be very evocative and at times trigger
awe even among the very young (figure 1.5).
Only superficially does Buddhist Tantra resemble non-Buddhist Tantra. Though both
are transmitted by direct person-to-person tutelage, the objectives and results are far
apart. Non-Buddhist Tantrists employ the esoteric knowledge they gain for personal
power—to benefit themselves and their allies. Buddhist Tantra emerges from univer-
sal compassion and seeks well-being for all beings. That appears to be the reason for
its rapid spread across Asia from India to Sri Lanka and then to Nepal, Kashmir,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet, Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea, and Mongolia, where it
largely displaced non-Buddhist types of Tantra and sorcery. In the late twentieth
century, all types of Tantra were suppressed across Asia, mainly by communist govern-
The Emptying of Ontology 23

ments, sometimes savagely, as during the Chinese invasion and occupation of Tibet.
Monks and novices from many Tibetan monasteries then fled across the formidable
Himalayan barrier (often with only the clothes they wore) to sympathetic neighboring
nations, principally India, Nepal, and Bhutan, where they tacked together primitive
structures as monasteries. These were soon improved by aid from wealthy nations,
sometimes elaborately. From these new sites Tantric teachings spread with increasing
vigor to Europe and America.
There are alternative ways of classifying Tantric procedures. However, four basic
types are generally recognized.14 Each type focuses mentality and behavior some-
what differently, the aim being to enable access by different types of people to these
deeper levels of consciousness. Of these four basic types, three are dual and one is

Dual Tantra
Dual Tantra operates in the realm of subject-object thought as the vehicle by which
attention is progressively directed to states of mind and actions that will enable one
to engage nondual Tantra. The most generally accepted classification of dual Tantra is
as follows.

Action Tantra (kriya-tantra; Tib: jha-gyud) Action Tantra emphasizes salutary activ-
ities rather than contemplation. It concerns itself principally with ethical behavior
and study. It is likened poetically to visualizing a clothed, erotically attractive female
and exchanging smiles with her. The mental happiness that arises guides one to
Moral Tantra.

Moral Tantra (carya-tantra; Tib: cho-gyud ) Moral Tantra combines the activities of
Action Tantra with contemplation of its beneficial effect. This is likened to the feel-
ing that comes when erotically attracted individuals exchange touches. Contempla-
tion of this stronger level of mental happiness leads to Meditative Tantra.

Meditative Tantra (yoga-tantra; Tib: naljor-gyud ) This type of dual Tantra is entirely
mental. Physical actions are no longer helpful. One only concentrates on the happi-
ness that emerges with a conceptual understanding of the relationship between
action and compassion. This understanding intensifies mental happiness and en-
ables one to nondually examine deeper levels of emotive force and consciousness.

Nondual Tantra (Anuttarayoga-tantra or Anuyoga-Tantra; Tib: neljor-lame-

There is only one type of nondual Tantra. Since there is no Tantra that goes more
deeply into the ultimate nature of life, it is most accurately referred to in English as
24 E Richard Sorenson

‘‘Ultimate (or Unsurpassed) Tantra,’’ though the slightly misleading term ‘‘Highest
Yoga Tantra’’ is often used. This type of Yoga is called ‘‘nondual’’ because it deals with
realms of consciousness beyond the duality of subject-object thought. Its practices en-
tirely overcome subject-object modes of consciousness.
While the objectives of all nondual Tantras are the same, procedural aspects can
differ. The Guhyasamaja-tantra (Tib: Sangwa-duepa) emphasizes vajra-mantra recitation
and the ‘‘Three Appearances’’ visualization (Tib: nang-gi-ngonpar-jang-chub-pa). Heruka-
tantra (Tib: Dechog) emphasizes accessing bliss. The Heruka (Tib: Dorjee-neljorma) and
Vajrayogini (Tib: Dorjee-neljorma) Tantras focus attention on the clear-light of non-
duality that is ultimately exposed by an extremely subtle conceptual understanding of
emptiness (Tib: wosel).
Because the Guhyasamaja-tantra is the foundation from which all other nondual
Tantras have emerged, the practices discussed below follow its format. All nondual
Tantras deal with the same fundamental states of emotive energy and consciousness
as the Guhyasamaja. The only differences are the allusive terminologies used and the
There are two basic types of nondual Tantra: (1) Activity Tantra and (2) Conscious-
ness Tantra. Both include all the essential practices of the other, since the aim of both
is to fully reveal the nondual character of consciousness at its most fundamental level.
Both accomplish an experiential realization of this most fundamental level of con-
sciousness (spoken of in classical Tantra as ‘‘the clear-light of emptiness’’) and both cre-
ate an extremely subtle consciousness/action body ( gyume-lus) and an understanding
of the compassionate unity of all life (zung-jug).

Activity Tantras (Upaya tantra; Tib: Pha-gyud ) Activity Tantra focuses on compassion-
ate action. Also called ‘‘Father Tantra,’’ it stresses production of an extremely subtle
level of awareness combined with the fundamental emotive force of life (sarva-
bodhicitta). Though the potential exists within all humans, it is normally unrealiz-
able due to the clamorousness of the conceptual and emotional aspects of normal
human mentality. This type of Tantra endeavors to break through the clamor to cog-
nize and experience increasingly subtle emotive essences and finally to reach the
most basic level of compassion (sarva-bodhicitta), which is also the deep source en-
abling erotic passion.
In classical Buddhist Tantra the basic emotive energies propelling life are spoken of
as ‘‘the winds-of-life.’’15 Breaking through to the fundamental ‘‘wind’’ (i.e., the bliss
beyond eroticism) usually requires physical coitus with a properly prepared consort
(Tib: lekyi-chag-gya). Those who have gained Tantric understanding are then able to
access the bliss that is more fundamental than erotic passion. This can occur when
the bliss state of coitus is intensely contemplated. This is normally extremely diffi-
The Emptying of Ontology 25

cult, since erotic action has a powerful grip on living species. Subtle guidance by an
expert Tantric practitioner is usually essential.
Some of the more widely employed Activity Tantras include Guhyasamaja (Tib:
Sangwa-duepa), Hayagriva (Tib: Tamdrin), Yamantaka (Tib: Jigje), and Mahachakra-
vajrapani (Tib: Chagtor-khorchen). The root text of Guhyasamaja Tantra (the original
source of all the others) provides the most elaborate details. Yamantaka, though usu-
ally classified as an Activity Tantra, deals almost equally with action and conscious-
ness with only slightly more emphasis on action.

Consciousness Tantra (prajna-tantra, Tib: sherab-gyud ) ‘‘Consciousness Tantra’’ (also

referred to as ‘‘Wisdom Tantra’’) emphasizes access to the most fundamental level
of consciousness, which in classical Tibetan Tantra is called wosel (‘‘clear light’’). Col-
loquially called ‘‘Mother Tantra’’ (Tib: Ma-gyud), this type of Tantra focuses attention
on that very subtle level of consciousness that realizes emptiness. It proceeds by
mimicking the increasingly subtle levels of consciousness that are exposed during
death. As subject-object mental activity resolves into the more fundamental states,
subtler levels are successively exposed until its most elemental level appears (this
occurs at the instant consciousness moves beyond the bodily senses).
These deeper levels are extremely difficult to detect during life. In humans they
are obscured by the five physically structured senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste,
and touch), by the conceptual mode of thinking, and by emotions associated with
the sense of self (e.g., ego, desire, attachment, pride, boorishness, ignorance, suspi-
cion, anger, fear, hate, contempt, disgust, and so on). Consciousness Tantras stress
erotic heat (Skt: candali; Tib: tumo) to reduce the emotive forces of life to their fun-
damental substrates—in the language of classical Tantra, ‘‘to bring the winds-of-
life into the central channel’’ where they no longer have any sense of subject-object
duality. Heruka (Tib: dechog)—and its associated female Tantras, Vajrayogini (Tib:
dorje-naljorma) and Vajravarahi (Tib: dorje-phagmo)—use the same root text, which
is relatively explicit and highly regarded. (See the discussion of the Heruka and
Vajrayogini Tantras below.) Other major Wisdom Tantras include Kalachakra (Tib:
Dhuekhor) and Hevajra (Tib: Kye-dorjee). Their practice requires two stages of mental

The Generation Stage (Utpattikrama, Tib: Kyerim)

In the Generation Stage the actual experiences of the subtler levels of consciousness
sought in Tantra are not realized. To prepare for such realization, awareness is concen-
trated on personified symbols that represent the actual experiences. This approach is
therefore also called ‘‘artificial’’ yoga. Its purpose is to present conditions that enable
individuals to eventually accomplish a direct experience of the actual nonsymbolic
26 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.6
Stages of realization reachable only through profound introspective analysis of the actual experi-
ence of the most fundamental erotic state are a crucial aspect of such Tantric practices which in-
clude tutelary iconographic diagrams like this one for the Heruka Tantric practice (Gyudmed
Tantric Monastery, 1982).

levels of consciousness. These symbols are usually anthropomorphized and (in-

accurately) called ‘‘deities’’ in English. At their most abstract level they are set forth in
elaborately abstract artistic diagrams (figure 1.6), which enable one to more easily rec-
ognize the actual experiential states in the later stages of Tantric practice. They are
guides to the visualizations that prepare students for Tantric practice.16 The size of
these diagrams, and the number and attributes of their entities, differ from Tantra to
Tantra. These abstractions can also be visualized positioned internally within one’s
own body. Some monasteries present these abstract representations in choreographic
presentations (cham) (figure 1.7). Regardless of which approach is used, the basic men-
tal states to which they refer are the same.
As soon as genuine experiences of the subtler states begin occurring, the Generation
Stage, by definition, automatically ceases, and the Completion Stage begins, some-
times without practitioners actually noticing. The shift, however, is momentous in
The Emptying of Ontology 27

Figure 1.7
A young monk embodies the nature of inescapable death for his monastery’s annual
choreographic presentation (cham) (Zongkar Choede Monastery, 2001).
28 E Richard Sorenson

that practitioners now experience the subtler states of consciousness directly rather
than conjuring symbolic representations of them.

Completion Stage (zogrim)

Zogrim literally means ‘‘possess the levels.’’ It requires that one consciously possess
all the levels of mentality down to the most fundamental. The procedure is classi-
cally divided into six levels of practice,17 each of which confers an increasingly refined
conceptual understanding of consciousness until actual nondual emptiness, not a con-
cept of it, is directly experienced (figure 1.8). In classical Tantra this is the ‘‘clear-light
of emptiness.’’18 This occurs only by directly experiencing the fundamental mentality
that underlies compassion—that is, the bliss essence of the fundamental creative

Figure 1.8
An elder monk concentrates attention on the nonverbal inner
aspects of consciousness during the Monlam ritual conducted
by the Dalai Lama (Drepung Monastery, 1979).
The Emptying of Ontology 29

energy of life beyond any sense of gender or sexuality. This is experienced when the
subtlest wind-of-life merges as a single entity with the most subtle possible conceptual-
ization of emptiness. A sense of the unity of life (zung-jug) then appears. There are six
basic levels.

Level 1. Emptying Consciousness of Its Prevailing Sense of Physical Body This is often
spoken of in English as ‘‘isolation of body.’’ The process, however, is not so much one
of isolation (in the sense of sequestering), as of overcoming the patterns of awareness
imposed by the human physical and mental structure. This process has already been
initiated in the Generation Stage as an imaginary exercise. When the actual states of
consciousness begin to be experienced, they replace imagination. The process then au-
tomatically becomes a Completion Stage activity. In classical Tantric terminology this
occurs when the ‘‘winds-of-life’’ move from the ‘‘peripheral channels’’ to the ‘‘central
channel’’—that is, from the daily-life areas of expression to the one where the under-
lying essences hold sway. It requires a shift of mental focus. Some examples of exer-
cises devised to facilitate such movement are:

Vajra Mantra Recitation Vajra Mantra recitation initially concentrates on the actual au-
ditory sounds of three Sanskrit syllables, om, ah, and hum. Increasingly intense concen-
tration on them withdraws attention from emotions that obstruct notice of the subtler
states of mind.

White-Wind-Drop Visualization (Tib. jangsem) A concentrated imaginary visualization

of a tiny Tantric diagram (with all its symbolic entities in detail) within the ‘‘white-
wind-drop’’ (‘‘essence-of-semen’’) is conjured at the tip opening of one’s ‘‘secret site’’
(organ of basic erotic feeling). Intense concentration on the feeling then experientially
reveals the subtler emotional states underlying it—in archaic Tantric language it
arouses latent repositories of ‘‘white-wind’’ (‘‘inner heat,’’ Tib. tumo) in the head,
navel, and genitalia by which perception of the vacuity of concept becomes possible
while simultaneously experiencing great bliss.19

Three Appearances Visualization (nang-gi-ngonpar-jang-chub-pa) The Three Appearances

are experiences of subtle states of consciousness that become apparent when one con-
centrates on three postulated colors (white, red, and black), in that order. Though the
‘‘appearances’’ are spoken of as colors, they are not to be confused with colors as seen
by eye. Rather they are suggestive transcendental stand-ins that reflect three progres-
sively weaker levels of the obstructive states of consciousness produced by normal hu-
man living. Originally indicated by the Guhyasamaja Tantra, these obstructive states of
consciousness were clarified poetically by Nagarjuna around the second century A.D.
and (a thousand years later) given greater verbal specificity in a taxonomic structure
30 E Richard Sorenson

linked to the Three Appearances by Tsongkhapa (see table 1.1).20 The Three Appear-
ances are:
White Appearance (Tib. chak-drel ) No words adequately describe White Appearance.
However, it has been spoken of metaphorically as ‘‘like the color of moonlight on a
clear autumn night filling the emptiness of night,’’ or, in the words of Tsongkhapa,
‘‘like cloudless sky in dustless air blanketed by moonlight.’’ White Appearance is also
referred to as ‘‘detachment from attachment’’ (Tib: chak-drel), since during the expe-
rience of White Appearance one is more aware of emptiness than of bliss. This occurs
when the eighty gross levels of consciousness associated with ordinary human life
fade into its preternatural sense of whiteness. When they have done so, Red Appear-
ance starts arising.
Red Appearance Frequently described as ‘‘like sunlight filling a clear autumn sky,’’
Red Appearance is spoken of by Tsongkhapa as ‘‘like cloudless sky in dustless air
blanketed by sunlight.’’ Because of its close relationship to compassion, it is some-
times referred to the ‘‘essence of Action Tantra.’’ It occurs when White Appearance
fades into a rising preternatural sense of redness. It is also spoken of as ‘‘ardor’’ or
‘‘bliss’’ because of the feeling of great joy that it generates. Concentration on these
feelings ultimately enables a deeper sense of emptiness to be perceived. Once this is
perceived, Black Appearance begins rising.
Black Appearance (chakpa-barwa) Black Appearance is poetically described as ‘‘like the
absence of light in a moonless autumn night-sky’’ or, in Tsongkhapa’s words, ‘‘a
cloudless sky blanketed by onset of night.’’ It is called the ‘‘Burning Essence’’ (chak-
pa-barwa) in reference to the intense experience of conjoining of bliss and emptiness.
It is also called ‘‘ignorance’’ because the highest level of bliss is still obscured by the
sense of ‘‘blackness.’’ Intense concentration on the blackness reveals a motionless,
visionless appearance (devoid of any sense of object). This is ‘‘similitude clear-light’’
( pei-wosel), the subtlest possible conceptual understanding of the basic nonconceptual
nature of pure consciousness. Black Appearance must be approached carefully, since it
can confer mental damage on those who have not yet attained an unfailing, instinc-
tive habitude of fundamental compassion (sarva-yogacitta; Tib: tamche-neljor-gyi-sem).

When these experiences of the Three Appearances start to remain in memory after
the meditative exercise, it becomes easier to perceive the fundamental levels of

Four Empties Visualization Associated with the Three Appearances are four increasingly
vacuous levels of conceptual thinking referred to as the Four Empties:
The Empty (Tib: tongpa) is awareness of the vacuity of the objects of thought associ-
ated with the eighty gross levels of consciousness (see note 20). It occurs when the
internal sense of White Appearance is realized.
Table 1.1
The eighty obstructive states of consciousness originally indicated by the arcane allusive language
of the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra as clarified by Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa (see note 20).
White Appearance Red Appearance
emerges from cessation of the thirty-three emerges from cessation of forty subtler
strongly obstructive mental preoccupations modes of obstructive consciousness
Hatred (for any kind of object other than oneself) Desire to obtain something not possessed
Disdain (for any kind of object other than oneself) Desire to keep to something already possessed
Dislike (for any kind of object other than oneself) Strongly liking an object or being
Strongly missing (a loved one or thing) Ordinary liking for an object or being
Missing (a loved one or thing) Mild liking for an object or being
Slightly missing (a loved one or thing) Delightedness (when accomplishing ends)
Neutral mind (neither happy nor sad) Obsessive thinking (about liked objects)
Distractedness (unable to maintain mental focus Sense of surprise
on anything) Abstracted mind (mentally engaged but not paying
Panic particular attention)
Fear Sense of satisfaction
Anxiety Eagerness to embrace
Strong fondness (for someone or something) Eagerness to kiss
Moderate fondness (for someone or something) Eagerness to suck
Mild fondness (for someone or something) Impulse to maintain mental status quo
Doting on any of one’s five basic constituents of Zealousness in the pursuit of virtuous action
existence (body, perception, sensation, instinct, Sense of self-importance (egotism)
and consciousness) Obsession to complete an action
Uncertainty (regarding the value of virtuous action) Impulse to acquire something by force
Eagerness to eat Impulse to destroy another’s power
Eagerness to drink Fervor to form a habit of virtuous action
Tactile pleasure Impulse for destructive action (strong)
Tactile displeasure Impulse for destructive action (medium)
Tactile sensibility without pleasure or displeasure Impulse for destructive action (weak)
Subject-oriented mental disposition Arrogance
Object-oriented mental disposition Desire for playful affection
Action-oriented mental disposition Repugnance
Preoccupation with ethical action Vengefulness
Distress regarding unethical action Obsession to elaborately explain
Aversion to shameful activity Obsession to be candid
Pity Obsession to deceive others
Protectiveness Obsession to keep promises
Eagerness to be with the things or people one likes Indifference to possessions
Tendency to ignore (people or things one dislikes) Obsession to be generous
Eagerness to accumulate things Obsession to promote virtuous action by others
Jealousy Eagerness to defeat enemies
Shamelessness (brazenness, lack of concern for feelings
of others)
Joy in deceiving others
Impulse to persist in wrong views
Intentional unjustness
Black Appearance
emerges when seven very subtle obstructive mental habitudes cease
Disinterestness (lacking interest for objects and ideas)
Neglectful memory (repressing aspects of memory)
Tendency to fantasize (attentiveness to illusions)
Aversion to speech
Angst (inclination to be unhappy)
Disinclination to act beneficially
Indecisiveness (eschewing decisive action)
32 E Richard Sorenson

The Very Empty (Tib: shintu tongpa) is awareness of the emptiness of the subtle level
of subject-object thinking associated with the nonverbal levels of intentionality (the
emotive winds-of-life). The movement of these subtler levels of intentionality gener-
ate the sense of Red Appearance.
The Great Empty (Tib: chenpo tongpa) is awareness of the vacuity of the even subtler
level of subject-object thinking that discloses the most basic emotive forces. As these
levels of intentionality collapse, the sense of Black Appearance arises.
The Extremely Empty (Tib: thamched tongpa) is the cessation of the most subtle level
of subject-object thinking and the very subtle emotive force that is its partner.
Each of the Four Empties represents further progress on the way toward the
direct nonconceptual experience of the emptiness in the absence of dualistic thought.
White Appearance leads to appreciation of the first level, Red Appearance to the
second, and Black Appearance to the third. A full realization of Black Appearance is
referred to as ‘‘empty,’’ but not ‘‘emptiness.’’ The fourth, the Extremely Empty, with
its almost total vacuity of conceptual thought, dawns only after concentration on
Black Appearance subdues its blackness. In classic Tantric terminology this occurs
when all the ‘‘winds-of-life’’ have been absorbed into the ‘‘central chamber of the heart

Four Joys The sense of liberation conveyed by the Four Empties generates Four Joys,
each being a more ecstatic experience than the previous. These are spoken of as (1)
Joy ( gawa), (2) Great Joy (chogtu-gawa), (3) Extreme Joy (khye-gawa), and (4) Exquisite
Joy (lhenkye-kyi-gawa).21 The sense of emptiness associated with White Appearance suf-
fuses one with Joy; that accompanying Red Appearance brings Great Joy; Black Appear-
ance brings Extreme Joy; and clear-light suffuses one with Exquisite Joy.

Level 2. Emptying Consciousness of Domination by Verbal Rumination (Tib: thamel-

pae-ngag) The second level of the Completion Stage is often translated as ‘‘isolation
of speech.’’ However, rather than verbal activity being set apart and isolated, it is
replaced by appreciation of its underlying emotive forces. The transformation is ac-
complished by internal (rather than verbal) Vajra Mantra recitation, a practice that
concentrates on the internal mental vibrations associated with the subtler levels of
life’s emotive forces. The shift of one’s attention from auditory sounds to inner
‘‘sounds’’ is facilitated by the affinity of these internal vibrations to the actual sounds
of the Sanskrit syllables om, ah, and hum. Internal mantra is also called ‘‘subtle man-
tra.’’22 With repetition the verbal conceptualization that normally dominates human
mentality gives way.23 This and similar meditational practices quiet the normal cruder
levels of mental engagement and allow internal experiential exploration of subtler
levels of consciousness.
The Emptying of Ontology 33

Level 3. Emptying Consciousness of Domination by Conceptual Thought (Tib: sem-ven)

The aim of the third level of the Completion Stage is to become aware of the nondual
foundations of consciousness.24 This requires experiencing rather than conceptualiz-
ing them.25 Though this is often referred to as ‘‘isolation of mind,’’ nothing is actually
isolated in the sense of being set off by itself or quarantined. Rather, the tendency
for human minds to conceptualize is reduced ultimately to the nondual level of
consciousness that underlies conceptualization. In Tantric metaphorical terminology
this is spoken of as ‘‘loosening the channel constrictions that obstruct movement of
the winds-of-life into the central chamber of the heart chakra.’’

Consort Union (Tib: les-kyi-chak-gya) To do so one must first have a direct experience of
the basic creative force of life (sarva-yogacitta) that underlies eroticism. There are two
basic types of consort union: visualized ( yeshe-kyi chak-gya) and actual (les-kyi chak-
gya). According to Nagarjuna, in his ‘‘Thoroughly Illuminating Nagarjuna’s Instruc-
tions on the Five Levels of Ultimate Tantra’’ (Rimpa-nga), there are five steps in the
Completion Stage of Guhyasamaja. The first three are visualized. The last two are expe-
riential. According to Tsongkhapa, only these last two actually bring the ‘‘winds-of-
life’’ into the ‘‘central channel’’ where they then generate the Four Joys. This, he
explains, cannot occur without actual consort union (les-kyi-chak-gya). This is a Com-
pletion Stage practice in its entirety. Without actual coitus with a real consort the ele-
mental emotive force underlying eroticism (and on which eroticism takes its shape)
cannot be perceived. During the act of coitus, this underlying emotive force is per-
ceived through intense contemplation of the erotic sensation (rather than the erotic
activity). This then leads to the last of the four empties (the extremely-empty), which
in turn enables the experience of bliss combining with emptiness to be directly per-
ceived. Terminologically the five steps to this realization are:
1. Bliss Visualization The practitioner imagines uniting sexually with a consort while
simultaneously focusing consciousness on an idea of bliss generated by the subtle
conceptual understanding of emptiness. This is a Generation Stage practice and, as
Tsongkhapa observed, it does not generate an actual experience. Rather, it prepares
one eventually to achieve such experience.
2. Mandala Entities Visualized within a White-Wind-Drop While imagining sexual
union with a consort, the practitioner visualizes the essence of all the entities of a
Tantric mandala in a drop of semen essence. This white-wind-drop (semen-drop) is
then visualized descending from the head through the region of the elemental emo-
tional winds (spoken of in Tantra as the ‘‘central channel’’) to the site (chakra) of
erotic motivation at the genitalia, from which the quintessence (not substance) of
all the salutary mandala entities is released into the site of erotic motivation of the
consort. This, too, is a Generation Stage practice since the basic emotive essence of
life (in the white-wind-drop) is only imagined.
34 E Richard Sorenson

3. White-Wind-Drop Exercise The white-wind-drop (i.e., the emotive force of

eroticism) is circulated by force of mental concentration on the emotional knots
concentrated at the head (‘‘crown chakra’’), to those concentrated at the heart
(‘‘heart chakra’’), to those associated with the genitalia (‘‘secret chakra’’), and back.
Each circulation reduces the grosser winds of ordinary mentality progressively
toward their underlying essences. This is spoken of in Tantra as moving one’s
mental focus into the ‘‘central channel.’’ The transformation is a Completion Stage
4. White-Wind Retention Prior to its twelfth chapter, the Vajramala requires concen-
tration on the act of holding the experiential essence of the white-wind (symbolized
by the semen-drop) rather than focusing on the form of the drop. It states: ‘‘When
the essence of the white-wind flows from the crown chakra through heart chakra to
the male genitalia, it must be held there and not allowed to move beyond.’’
5. White-Wind Emission Later the Vajramala speaks of a ‘‘melted’’ white-semen-drop
(i.e., white-wind) emerging from the male genitalia and touching the interior of
the consort’s genitalia. In this type of consort union, consciousness focuses on
the extremely subtle form of the white-wind itself rather than on the act of retain-
ing it.
Not just any consort will do. There are three effective kinds: ngag-kye (a young practi-
tioner of the Generation Stage), zhing-kye (one who has realized any of the first four
levels of the Completion Stage), and lhen-kye (one who has realized Unity). A generic
term for all the types of consorts is pho-nya (messenger of bliss). Effective consort union
requires three conditions: (1) visualizing oneself and one’s consort as conveyors of the
essences of truth (lue-la-lhayi-dushe), (2) visualizing the physical openings of the male
and female genital organs plugged by the yellow Sanskrit syllable, phet (ngag-la-ngak-
kyi-dushe), and (3) being motivated solely by the possibility of experiencing true bliss
( yi-la-choe-kyi-dushe), not ordinary sexual bliss. If any of the conditions is not fulfilled,
the effort turns into ordinary coitus. Each failure makes the next attempt more difficult.
Two widely employed general procedures for actual consort union are introduced
in Vajradhara’s ‘‘Indestructible Progression’’ (Vajramala). Further details can be seen in
Losang Choegyen’s ‘‘Essence of the Five Levels of the Completion Stage’’ (Rim-nga-

Level 4. Generating a Basic Emotive Force Conjoined with Basic Consciousness (Skt:
Mayadeha; Tib: Gyumae-lus) This level is devoted to acquiring an extremely subtle
body sensibility (Gyumae-lus). As conceptually presented in Tantra, consciousness
only perceives objects and analyzes perceptions; it has no physical power and cannot,
therefore, undertake activity. The emotive force of life, on the other hand, is physical
power but with with no analytic awareness. It can neither perceive objects nor analyze
The Emptying of Ontology 35

perceptions. Intelligent action becomes possible only when consciousness and emotive
force act together.
From introspective examination of one’s own basic states of consciousness and emo-
tive forces, one can eventually discover an extremely subtle level of consciousness that
links to an extremely subtle level of the emotive force of life. The linkage creates an
extremely subtle awareness-body capable of intelligent action at the fundamental level
of consciousness. The most detailed descriptions appear in the Guhyasamaja texts,
Pradipa-dyotana (Tib: Dronsel) by Candrakirti and the Shed-gyud by Rinchen Sangpo.
The most complete commentaries on these descriptions are in Tsongkhapa’s ‘‘Thor-
oughly Illuminating Nagarjuna’s Instructions on the Five Levels of Ultimate Tantra’’
(Rimpa-nga-seldon) and Aryadeva’s ‘‘Clear Light on the Completion Stage of the Guhy-
samaja Tantra’’ (Carya-samgraha-pradipa; Tib: Chod-du), with additional explanations in
his ‘‘Clear Presentation of the Stages of Self Perfection’’ (Svadhisthana-krama-prabheda;
Tib: Dhag-jin-lap).
This very subtle body is often spoken of in English as ‘‘illusory body’’—because it
is similar to a body in a dream. In Tibet it is considered magical in appearance, and is
therefore sometimes translated as ‘‘magic body.’’ Sometimes it is called ‘‘imaginary
body.’’ Such translations are indicative, but none is fully accurate. Since there is body,
it is not an illusion. Magic does not produce it, so it is not a magic body. Though it can
be imagined, it is real form, not merely imagination. In his Rimpa-nga, Nagarjuna
described it as so subtle that it cannot be understood from anything written about
it. There are, however, metaphors and similes. Tantrists commonly refer to it as
‘‘the product of the simultaneous conjoint activation of subtlest consciousness with
the subtlest wind-of-life.’’26 They state: ‘‘Those who are able to abandon dualistic
thinking at the time of death can achieve this type of body when their consciousness
starts to enter the intermediate state (bardo).’’
Though the possibility of such a body can be adumbrated by metaphor, Tantric
scholars are quick to explain that it is not possible to actually grasp just what this
type of body is without first removing consciousness from subject-object thinking.
Nagarjuna says (in his Rimpa-nga) that human thinking first has to change fundamen-
tally. Tsongkhapa is more explicit in his Rim-nga-seldron (a commentary on Nagarjuna’s
Rimpa-nga). He reveals that those able to practice the Four Empties during sleep will
then be able to recognize the true nature of dreaming as a reflection of the basic emo-
tive force of life. Aryadeva’s Carya-samgraha-pradipa (Tib: Chod-du) goes further and
shows how cultivation of the dream state enables a subtle conceptual realization of
‘‘very subtle body.’’27 It also explains that such a body can be realized at the moment
of death without consort practice. Vajradhara’s Vajramala and Tsongkhapa’s Rimpa-
nga-seldron explain how.28
Generating such a body stabilizes one’s grasp of the deeper levels of conscious-
ness and provides a means by which effective compassion can be exercised (figures
36 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.9a Figure 1.9b

This ancient statue of Mahakala (Tib: Gonpo) This ancient statue of Avalokiteswara (Tib:
displays the angst mixed with joyousness Chenrizig) reveals the calm joyousness that
that can come when practicing extreme com- comes with reflection on the positive effects
passion (Lamayuru Monastery, 1979). of compassion (Ladakh, 1979).

1.9a–b). When it is first actualized traces of gross mentality are still there, which
prevent the body from being realized in its true, subtlest form. For full realization,
the ultimate elemental meaning of emptiness must be directly experienced in its full
nonconceptualizable nature (in Tantric terminology, ‘‘realizing actual clear-light’’)—
this being the goal of level 5.

Level 5. Relieving the Mentality of the Remaining Subtle Concepts Associated with the
Three Appearances (Tib: nang-gi-ngonpar-jang-chub-pa) The fifth level of the Com-
pletion Stage introduces one to the most elemental level of consciousness—spoken
of by Tibetan Tantrists as ‘‘actual clear-light’’ (wosel). It is the nondual state of the
fundamental level of consciousness in which direct experience does not crystalize
The Emptying of Ontology 37

into subjects and objects. Tantrists speak of it as ‘‘the mind of great bliss cognizing
the nonreality of subject-object conceptualization.’’ Though one can conceptualize
such a mentality (and though such concepts can lead students to nonconceptual
perception), the actual experience of nonduality can only occur after all conceptual
thinking ceases.
When conceptually considered, this subtlest level of consciousness can be either ob-
ject or subject. When a person’s consciousness focuses on it, it is object. When it is
one’s mind beholding the inherent emptiness of concepts, it is subject. At the noncon-
ceptual level, however, it is neither. Rather it is the nondual experiential nature of the
deepest level of consciousness, thus beyond the possibility of explanation by words
and syntax (figures 1.10a–b). The fifth level of the Completion Stage takes one to this
nondual state of consciousness spoken of by Tantrists as ‘‘pure clear-light.’’ One
reaches it when the subtlest conceptual appreciation of nondual consciousness (i.e.,
the last remaining subtle conceptualization of clear-light) is replaced by the direct
(rather than conceptual) experience of it. This then is the final condition of the Fourth
Empty. Tibetan Tantrists speak of the external cause of such perception being actual
coital experience with an appropriate consort, as required by this stage of Tantric
practice. Its internal cause, according to them, is the transformation of mentality by
meditative concentration on that unobscured true bliss that is more fundamental
than erotic bliss.29

Level 6. Unity (Tib: Zung Jug) The sixth level confers a stable realization of the unity
of the fundamental levels of emotive force (sarva-yogacitta) and consciousness (wosel).
One enters this level as a learner in a state called ‘‘learners’ unity.’’ The learning process
requires two processes.

Mixing Subtle Body and Cessation One first must bring the completed extremely-
subtle-awareness-action body ( gyumae-lus) into the cessation of ego-oriented emotive
forces. This requires experiencing (not conceptualizing) nondual awareness in the pres-
ence of extraordinary bliss (the Fourth Joy). The combination enables practitioners to
retain their completed subtle-awareness-action-bodies during active life. In Nagarjuna’s
Rimpa-nga this is spoken of as a ‘‘unity-body’’ devoid of such negative emotions as
anger, hatred, desire, and so on (collectively, nyon-drib) as well as the very subtle per-
sisting residue (‘‘smell’’) of such delusions (shey-drib).

Eradicating the Smell The smell is eradicated by repeating the dissolution and regener-
ation of the Three Appearances. When all traces of the smell are gone, there is nothing
left to learn. One is then said to have realized the consummate nature of consciousness
as primordial unity (milob-pai-zung-jug).
38 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.10a
Here Heruka (Tib: Dechog) unites (anthropomorphically) with Vajrayogini (Tib: Dorjee
Neljorma) in order to merge the root essence of action and consciousness as the means to
realize the unity-of-existence (Lamayuru Monastery, Ladakh 1978).
The Emptying of Ontology 39

Figure 1.10b
The faces in this large statue of Guhyasamaja (Tib: Sangwa-duepa) register aspects of the fervor
that can occur during consort practice. It is a new statue and somewhat reflects modern ideas
about erotic consciousness (Gaden-Jangtse Monastery, 2001).

Brief Summaries of Some Ultimate Tantras

Guhya-samaja (Tib: Sangwa-deupa)

The Guhya-samaja (also called Tathagata-guhyaka in Sanskrit) is the Ur-Tantra from
which all the other Buddhist ultimate Tantras emerged. In Tibet it is normally referred
to as Sangwa-duepa (or Sangdu), but it can also be called Mikyod-dorje, Shedang-dorje,
or Jampel-dorje. It was first taught by Buddha to Vajrapani and King Indrabodhi. It
passed through Nagarjuna and Lok Kya Sherab Tzek to Tsongkhapa, who passed it to
his disciples, Sherab Singe (who founded Gyudmed Tantric University) and Gyuchen
40 E Richard Sorenson

Kunga Thondrub (who founded Gyutoe Tantric University). Since then it has been
passed from abbot to abbot in both monasteries. Its first seventeen chapters (sangwa-
dupae-tza-gyud) explain all four major types of Buddhist Tantra in detail and are
believed to be a transcription of the actual words of Buddha. The eighteenth chapter
summarizes these explanations.
There are two main Guhyasamaja traditions: Mikyodpa-phaglug and Yeshe-zhablug.
The Mikyodpa-phaglug line, established by Nagarjuna in the fifth century, is still widely
practiced. It was introduced to Tibet by Marpa Lotsawa in the eleventh century but
only became firmly established there in the fourteenth century through the efforts
of Tsongkhapa. The Yeshe-zhablug line derived from the Gyanapada tradition of an-
cient India and is now practiced mainly in India. Candrakirti clarifies many of the
difficult meanings of the Guhyasamaja in his ‘‘Brilliant Lamp Commentary on the
Guhyasamaja-tantra’’ (Dronsel). Nagarjuna’s Pentabida-sadhana (Dor-jae) gives further
details on the Generation Stage, and his Sri-guhyasamaja-mahayoga-tantra-upadatrama-
dana-satama-sharwa-kanama (Tib: Do-sae) explains the stages of generating Guhyasa-
maja and combines its methods with the practice of Sutra. It also explains the proper
order of the Guhyasamaja Root Text (which was deliberately mixed to protect it).
Referred to in English as ‘‘The Complete Mysteries of Buddhahood,’’ ‘‘The Secret
Congress,’’ and ‘‘Secret Conjoining,’’ the Guhyasamaja was first explained in detail by
Nagarjuna in his ‘‘Lamp Illuminating the Five Steps of the Completion Stage’’ (Rimpa-
nga). It emphasizes emptying body, speech, and mind of gross emotive forces and
subject-object thinking as the essential preparation for realizing subtle body ( gyumae-
lus), nondual consciousness (wosel), and Unity (zung-jug).
The complete diagram (mandala) of the Guhyasamaja Tantra displays the thirty-two
personified symbolic entities of its Generation Stage, each representing an important
salutary state of mind. Vajradhara (Tib: Mikyodpa), its central personification, repre-
sents the fundamental essence of consciousness.
Though an essential practice of Guhyasamaja is consort coitus, this practice is not
openly detailed in the texts because it is considered hazardous when not carefully
guided by properly qualified, experienced Tantrists.

Heruka (Tib: Khorlo-demchog)

As the personification of supreme bliss, Heruka is one of the most important symbolic
representations of subtle states of consciousness in the Tantric pantheon. ‘‘He’’ is also
called Cakrasamvara in Sanskrit and, in Tibetan, Trak-thung-pawo and Khorlo-dhompa
(the blood-drinking victorious one who ‘‘drinks’’ the ‘‘red semen-blood’’—a symbolic
articulation of perceiving that primordial bliss atop which eroticism takes shape in
human beings. The Heruka Tantra is recorded in monastic archives as going from Bud-
dha to Vajrapani, then to Saraha and onward to Nagarjuna, Tilopa, and Naropa. It was
brought to Tibet in the tenth century by Lok Kya Sherab Tzek, where it was translated
The Emptying of Ontology 41

into Tibetan by Rinchen Sangpo and Padma Karvarma and eventually transmitted to
Tsongkhapa and Sherab Singe, the founder of Gyudmed Tantric University.
The essence of Heruka is beyond cognitive perception and defies the rules of gram-
mar by merging a subject (bliss) with an object (emptiness) and thereby overcoming
conceptual thought. The bliss is reflected in the name, Khorlo-dhompa, which translates
as ‘‘completion through great bliss.’’ Thus Dechog is also Cakra-samvara, the ‘‘Wheel of
Greatest Bliss,’’ which the Cakrasamvara mandala presents as an iconographic guide to
perception of the most elemental forms of emptiness (greatest bliss).
The name Dechog also refers to mind as subject, which is the source of the conscious-
ness by which innate ultimate bliss can be achieved. This bliss, though obscured by
overlays, is said to be an inherent part of all sentient beings from the beginning. The
Tantra is meant to help those who pursue its path to realize this bliss, first by imagin-
ing within themselves the nature of Dechog during the Preparation Stage, and then by
achieving the actual experience in the Completion Stage.

Vajrayogini (Tib: Dorje-neljorma)

Also called Vajravarahi in Sanskrit and Dorje-phagmo in Tibetan, Vajrayogini is a
Consciousness Tantra or Wisdom Tantra (‘‘mother Tantra’’). It is presented without
consort in a mandala with thirty-two personified symbolic entities. Both Heruka and
Vajrayogini use the same basic text. As female, Vajrayogini is the personification of the
bliss aspect of consciousness. As Vajravarahi, she is Heruka’s consort, and celebrated as
the origin of unexcelled bliss. Parts of the Heruka Tantra are therefore referred to as
Vajrayogini is also known as Vajradakini (poetically translated as ‘‘she who roams
over the void’’). Her Tantra employs concepts that merge ‘‘activity’’ (upaya) with ‘‘con-
sciousness’’ ( prajna). During meditation the great Indian Tantrist, Naropa, is said to
have encountered the essence of Vajrayogini as a solitary Tantra. He then passed this
particular realization to Pham-thing-pa, a Nepalese scholar, who passed it to Lo-kya
Sherab-tzek, a Tibetan Tantrist and translator. The solitary form is still widely practiced
in Tibet.

Yamantaka (Tib: Dorjee jigje)

Yamantaka, also known as Vajrabhairava, is the fierce form of Manjushri, the ‘‘con-
sciousness of ultimate reality.’’ He is considered the most extreme form of intelligence
in its most active form. Its Tantra can be undertaken with or without consort. In Tibet
Yamantaka has two main aspects: Jigje-pawo-chikpa, literally ‘‘solitary hero,’’ and Jigje-
lha-chusum-ma (with thirteen personified entities representing various salutary states
of mind).30 He is also Shinje-shae the defeater (shinje) of ego-oriented emotions (shae).
Since these emotions are the cause of death, he is recognized as ‘‘the conqueror of
death.’’ There are several Shinje-shae entities, including Dranak, Shemar-jigje, Dorje-jigje,
42 E Richard Sorenson

and Shinje-donk-druk. Both Yamantaka and Shinje-shae are collective names for the
various forms of Yamantaka, all of which represent the fierce aspect of Manjushri (the
personification of wisdom). As Jigje (the short name for Dorje-jigje-shinje-shae), Yaman-
taka is the conqueror of fear.31
Monastic history cites Buddha as the origin of the Yamantaka Tantra. He taught it
to Vajrapani and to some Dakini(s). It then disappeared in India. According to legend,
the famous siddhi, Lalitta, on noticing the term Dorje-jigje-jipar-che in the Jampel-tsen-
joe text, wondered whether there might be an associated Tantra. Deep meditation
suggested that such a Tantra existed in the purer mental ambience where Dakini forms
reside. With the help of a dakini personification (Rolangma) in this mental ambience,
Lalitta uncovered the Yamantaka Tantras. Having but a short time in this meditation,
he only memorized the third and seventh chapters, which he then passed on to Amog-
havajra, another famous siddhi. The Tantra was finally brought to Tibet by the trans-
lator, Ralotsawa Dorje-Drak, where it was eventually transmitted to Tsongkhapa, who
passed it to Jetzun Sherab Singhe.

Vajrasattva (Tib: Dorje Sempa)

Vajrasattva personifies the fundamental bliss essence of pure consciousness. As such
he presents the full range of Bodhisattva qualities leading to a realization of nondual
consciousness by visualizing the various states of consciousness represented by the
personified entities of the Tantra’s mandala. When essences of these states of con-
sciousness are recognized and internalized, they become reducible to the fundamental
essence of consciousness symbolized by Vajrasattva. This Tantra presents a ‘‘hundred-
syllable mantra’’ that, if recited twenty-one times every day, is said to reduce the
possibility of errors during the meditative generation of Vajrasattva. According to Vaj-
radhara’s text, Vajrasattva-tantra (Tib: Gyud-dorje-nying-po-gyen), recitation of the man-
tra combined with visualization of the essences of its entities removes obstacles to
achieving the subtlest state of mind. The ritual requires mentally reproducing the expe-
rience of the moment of death.
Like the other ultimate Tantras, Vajrasattva proceeds through all the stages until
nondual consciousness is finally reached: (1) Kriya-tantra, (2) Carya-tantra, (3) Yoga-
tantra, and (4) Anuttarayoga-tantra.

Kalachakra (Tib: Dhuekor)

Frequently referred to as the ‘‘wheel of time’’ in English, this Tantra presents the full
array of symbolic essences that lead to states of subtle consciousness. Unlike other ulti-
mate Tantras, instead of personified entities it stresses bodily form being emptied of
substance. ‘‘Empty body form’’ (tong-zug-kyiku) is the metaphor here for the extremely
subtle consciousness-action body, instead of ‘‘illusory body form’’ ( gyumae-lus). One of
its most distinctive practices is withdrawal of the winds-of-life from the physical senses
The Emptying of Ontology 43

to their most fundamental state in total darkness. There it reduces them to ‘‘four night
significances.’’ Unlike the Guhyasamaja Tantra, which actually draws the winds-of-life
into the central channel in the first two levels of its Completion Stage, the Kalachakra
draws them in during its Generation Stage.

Principal Tantric Orders of Tibet

Each Tantric tradition is based on a corpus of Tantras that has been sustained by means
of a line of transmission through direct person-to-person instruction over the centu-
ries.32 Principal among these are the following.

This, the oldest of the Tibetan Tantric orders, was founded in the eighth century by the
Indian Tantric scholar Padmasambhava. It utilizes ‘‘hidden texts’’ (terma) that were
hidden during the ninth-century persecution of Buddhists in Tibet. It also absorbed
the largest number of pre-Buddhist Tibetan regional divinities. Among all the Buddhist
Tantric orders of Tibet, the Nyingma has most extensively absorbed Central Asiatic
shamanism into its system.
Instead of the four types of Tantra of the other orders, the Nyingma present six Tan-
tras: (1) kriya-yoga (ritualistic), (2) Upa-yoga (symbolic convergence of mundane and
transcendental truth), (3) yoga (identifying oneself with the essence of the each of the
mandala deities), (4) maha-yoga (visualization of the basic aggregates of human con-
sciousness as deity forms), (5) anuyoga (secret initiation into the voidness of consort
meditation), and (6) atiyoga-anuttara (deep meditation on the deep bliss underlying
consort union that is the fundamental life force.)
Their Dzogchen doctrine traditionally rejects scholasticism in favor of a direct path
to enlightenment without formal doctrinal debate. Philosophically they adhere to the
zhen-tong position that pure consciousness (ultimate existential reality) is inherent in all
sentient beings, but is obscured by bodily form and verbal thought. Pure consciousness
is seen as the ‘‘indestructible essence of Buddha’’ (Tatha-gata-garbha), which underlies
all empirical phenomena. It is unperceivable to ordinary sentient beings due to the
standard patterns of mortal sensibility and mentality. Reality to the Nyingma is en-
tirely nonconceptual, and in that sense distinctionless.

The Kagyud trace their Tantric lineage from the Indian Tantrists Naropa and Tilopa.
The Tibetan scholar Marpa brought their lineage to Tibet, where it passed through
Milarepa to Gampopa (1079–1153), who then founded the Kagyud order. His out-
standing text, Dakpoi-thar-gyen (‘‘Dakpo’s Approaches to Liberation’’), was the first of
a genre of graded teachings known as Lamrim. This order has an individualistic aspect
44 E Richard Sorenson

that appears in the aversion by Milarepa (a widely admired folk hero of Tibet) to formal
scholarship and arbitrary regulation, traits that may have had roots in the pre-Buddhist
ethos. Its tolerance for individual expression has fostered diversification into several
The Kagyud stress hatha-yoga as a principal means of mastering the ordinary habi-
tudes of mind and body. This approach relies on regulation of breathing ( pranayama)
and the adoption of meditative postures (asana). It also utilizes six techniques (naro-
choe-drug) developed by Naropa for achieving Mahamudra (the ‘‘great seal’’ of true under-
standing): (1) meditatively generated inner heat (tumo), (2) generation of the extremely
subtle consciousness-action body ( gyumae-lus), (3) dream practice (nyid-ki-neljor), (4)
experiencing pure clear-light (wosel), (5) mentally accessing the intermediate state
(bardo), and (6) merging with transcendental unity (zung-jug).

The Sakya order traces its Tantric lineage from the teachings of the famous Tantric
scholar, Drog-mi (992–1072), through such renowned practitioners as Khon Konchog
Gyalpo, Sonam Tzemo, Drakpa Gyaltsen, Sakya Pandita, and Drogon Chogyal Phakpa.
Drog-mi translated the Hevajra-tantra (presentation of the fierce form of Heruka) into
Tibetan and introduced what has since been called ‘‘path-results’’ (lam-dre), a method
of sexual union that reveals transcendental unity. In doing so, this order rejects
the view that ultimate reality (Tathagatagarbha) is beyond rational interpretation on
the grounds that such a view does not take into consideration the vital role rationality
can play in realizing ultimate reality. Under the guidance of Sakya Pandita Kunga
Gyaltsen (1182–1251), the order became famous for its accomplishments in art, po-
etry, logic, and epistemology. And, like the Gelug, the Sakya curriculum stresses the
logic writings of Dignaga and Dharmakirti.

Based on the teachings of Atisha (an Indian Tantrist who came to Tibet in the eleventh
century), this order was founded by his main disciple, Dromston (Bromston) (c. 1008–
1064). Focusing attention on the exquisitely compassionate Prajnaparamita, the school
emphasized eradication of intellectual and ethical flaws in order to be able to attain
a true vision of emptiness. Its major text, Jangchub-lamgyi-dron-ma (‘‘The Clear Path
to Enlightenment’’) demonstrates the importance of compassion and shows how
all levels of human ability (e.g., all levels of intelligence—kyebu-chenpo, kyebu-dring,
and kyebu-chun-ngu) can be brought to enlightenment through pragmatic action. It
employs silent (nonverbal) mantra recitation as a means to prepare the mind, and Tan-
tric meditation to approach ultimate truth. Though it emphasizes philosophical studies
and monastic discipline, it has also produced the popular poetic Kadam-che-tud (‘‘Com-
The Emptying of Ontology 45

pendium of the Kadam Instructions’’). It merged into the similar Gelugpa school in the
fifteenth century.

After being formally educated in teaching centers of three major Tantric schools
(Kagyud, Sakya, and Kadam), the outstanding fourteenth-century Tibetan Tantric
scholar, Tsongkhapa, founded the Gelug school in order to introduce and stabilize
logic, mental quiescence, and enhanced perception as standard monastic practices.
His program is set forth in his Lamrim-chenmo (‘‘Great Graded Path’’), which stresses
regular exercise in logic and debate and formal examinations in the basic Buddist liter-
ature before Tantric practices are undertaken. For Tantric studies the order relies mainly
on Tsongkhapa’s famous Rim-nga-seldron.
The basic curriculum of this order thus follows Tsongkhapa’s Sung-bum-choe-gye
(‘‘The Eighteen Texts’’), an eighteen-volume corpus on Sutra and Tantra, each consist-
ing of about 300 pages, the Gyaltsab-je-sung-bum-druk (‘‘Gyaltsab Je’s Six Texts’’) and
the Khedrub-je-sung-bum-poe-chu-nyi (‘‘Khedrub Je’s Twelve Texts’’). The principal pre-
paratory studies of the Gelug are the Pramana (studied from Dharmakirti’s point of
view), Prajnaparamita texts, the Madhyamika, the Abhidharmakosa, and Vinaya. When
these have been mastered, Tantric studies can begin.33
The great teaching monasteries of the Gelug Order are Gaden, Drepung, and
Sera. Its most famous and important Tantric teaching centers are Gyudmed and


This evolution of the written Buddhist philosophy after Buddha passed away reflects
the intellectuality of the Buddha and perhaps a preconquest ancestry of the peoples
among whom it swiftly took root without coercion. This basic tolerance of, indeed in-
terest in, the thought and feelings of others, whatever the mix of its ancestry, also en-
abled new intellectual currents to emerge openly within congeries of thought and to be
developed. Thus new schools emerged from within old without duress. This unarticu-
lated basic indulgence of human differences persisted in Buddhist monasteries over
millennia and can still be seen in unmodernized Tibetan monasteries, where it shows
up as an embedded consequence of Buddha’s message not to take concepts very seri-
ously. Historically it allowed continued innovation of the Buddhist philosophical
development after it passed into the hands of humankind, where it persisted as an
embedded desire to share observations and experience.
One only need observe how novice monks engage life and learning in the few re-
maining traditional monasteries to see the pattern of exploratory inquiry that spawned
46 E Richard Sorenson

the philosophical movement outlined above. The trait sits most boldly on the surface
of young children, simply because children tend to be kinetic, and kinetic activity, un-
like mental activity, stands out to the eye. So we see youngsters unabashedly blanket-
ing whatever new thing comes their way with a spirited exploration while they also
eagerly gauge its impact on others (figure 1.11). Even in the more mature monastic set-
tings, where there are fewer children to rush about, intellectual exploration proceeds in
a similar though less conspicuous fashion.
In the prologue, I described a monastery where more than half of the monks were
sixteen years of age or younger. What stood out there, day after day, were young
novices rushing eagerly to share whatever special tidbit might have come their way
(whether material or ideational) with whatever comrades might be around them.
Thus a chocolate bar would rapidly become twenty tiny bits, in order that its taste
could be experienced with as many associates as possible. The joys of personal posses-
sion simply did not have as powerful an attraction as the delights of shared sensibility.
In twenty-five years of observation of traditional Tibetan monasteries I do not recall
ever seeing a novice eating something who did not want to share it with those around,
including me.
One day, while having lunch with a group of novices, a burst of mirth snared my
attention. An adolescent novice had just selected, as if solely for himself, the largest
apple off a plate. Bursts of laughter from the others, no verbal comment, just hilarity,
as several then did much the same, usually with some special fillip or perspective of
their own. There was no obligation to be either different or the same. Nor did there ap-
pear to be any desire to have a more dramatic slant. They were just nuzzling at a trait
all had seen outside. That it snared their minds in different ways was the basis of their
joy. Each was acting out the sense of how it had struck him. There was no particular
order to the theatrics. Nor was the intent pejorative. They would simply jump into
action with their versions when they felt they had a slant to contribute. When they
noticed my perplexed curiosity, they said, ‘‘You can do it, too. You, too, can be like
an Indian.’’ I realized then that what I was seeing was a collective effort to work out
the modalities of traits they had observed outside. Each set forth whatever slant he
had on it for all to see, thereby contributing to a growing collective understanding. Par-
ticularly fascinating to me was that the joy they derived came from the cumulative
appreciations they gained—not from trying to show that their slant was cleverer or
Though the kinetic aspect stands out in younger children, as they grow older, verbal
exploration moves more clearly into such inquiry. This can most dramatically be seen
in monasteries where traditional debating sessions are stressed. In such sessions dialec-
tic exercises combine kinesthetic action with verbal inquiry in such a way that per-
sonal choice governs the direction and mode of the inquiry. The younger ones are
most enthusiastically drawn to the athletic choreography, while the older novices
The Emptying of Ontology 47

Figure 1.11
A rope hammock from coastal India, introduced to the monastery moments earlier,
attracted this excited conjoint exploration of how it might be strung. It shows how
young novices integrate individual penchants with verve, tactility, and mirth as they
spontaneously conjoin their divergent approaches to novelty. This mode of learning
was seen in all the thirty traditional Tibetan monasteries observed in the 1960s and
1970s. Except in a very few recondite small monasteries, its vitality was largely gone
by the early twenty-first century (Zongkar Choede Monastery, 1999).
48 E Richard Sorenson

focus more intently on verbal dialectics. The two modes can be expressed in countless
combinations, so this ‘‘debating’’ (if it can really be called that) is popular across a
broad age range.
In other monasteries the playing out of personality and preference can pan out dif-
ferently. For example, in monasteries where subliminal harmonizing of the sounds and
rhythms of individual study has evolved, the libidos of new novices get snared by
sounds from older novices drifting through the atmosphere. Though they concentrate
intently on their own particular studies, some recess of their mind impels them to fit
the sounds and rhythms of their recitations into whatever might be in the air around
them. The effect, though automatic (not deliberate), is pleasurable and the new novices
soon harmonize their sounds of study with the fluctuating larger whole without sug-
gestion that they should do so. Instead, some kind of internal pleasure filters word-
lessly and subconsciously into their habitude and builds spontaneously into the
harmonies of those already there. The harmonizing spreads from area to area across
the monastic setting, spontaneously fostering increasingly complex changing moods
and nuances, at the same time that novices verbally pursue their particular studies.
It is similar to the subconscious manner that, in other monasteries, harmonizes
exploratory activity, or sociable tactility, or inquiry into novelty. This seemingly funda-
mental urge to conjoin provides a subterranean vitality in all traditional monasteries
that I observed.
One monastery I had been visiting off and on for a quarter century recently experi-
enced a large influx of youngsters from Tibet. More than half the monks were adoles-
cent or younger. With so many children all about, it became a place to see how new
novices in large numbers merge into the various, constantly differentiating, subliminal
assemblages. Above that monastery eagles start circling overhead as lunchtime nears.
These cruisers of the skies have learned that young monks will share their lunch. And
so they move in overhead to snatch from midair offerings tossed up to them. It is the
nature of these youngsters to gravitate by cautious steps toward closer contact with
unfamiliar things that have snared their curiosity. So a group of these young monklets
started going to rooftops to eat their lunch, to get a closer sense within the swirl of rap-
tors. At first they were cautious about how closely they dared share tidbits with the
eagles. Throw them far into the air was the first approach. And it was bits of bread
they tossed up, though they were well aware that eagles much prefer meat. But they
were uncertain at first about how aggressively the eagles would react to proffered
meat. When they did, the eagles moved so quickly some got unnerved. Nonetheless
by increments they inched to closer rapport.
The eagles never actually landed. If they missed a morsel in the air, they would
plummet down, thrusting wings out, but a second before they reached the ground in
a grand swoop they put their claws precisely onto the tidbit as they soared by. One
The Emptying of Ontology 49

day, a ten-year-old spied a small plastic bag lying on the ground. He tied it to one end
of a length of string, a meat chunk to the other. Within seconds an eagle swooped the
meat away. The bag filled with air like a parachute. If the eagle was perturbed, it gave
no indication, though the drag distinctly slowed its flight, and instead of soaring it had
to keep on flapping wings. No matter. It just churned nonchalantly through the air
while with its beak it pulled off shreds of meat to eat. When none were left, the bag
floated gently down to earth. The wind, the string, the plastic bag in relation to the
life force of the eagle entranced the monklets. What seemed most to snatch their
hearts was the eagle’s undistracted dedication to what was important—that is, the
meat. These youngsters have no difficulty understanding pragmatism, but were none-
theless agog to see the eagle managing with such savoir faire. They then took turns
grasping the string’s end and dashing down the path to fill the bag with wind, while
pretending to be eating with the other hand—to get a kinesthetic sense of the event
Since such experimental inquiry is neither forbidden nor encouraged (nor even
given notice), experiments such as these lead inevitably to others, not unlike the man-
ner Tibetan philosophy itself developed. So I was not surprised, a few days later, to see
meat tied to both ends of a length of a string. When an eagle quickly scooped up one,
the other dragged through the air behind—until snatched up seconds later by another.
The two then flew pragmatically in tandem devouring the chunks at leisure, after
which they soared off in separate directions. This, too, riveted the monklets. Then by
twos they grabbed each end of the string and ran parallel down the path, just to let the
string fall cavalierly away as they dashed off in separate directions. In such ways they
learned much about eagles, to whom their hearts now had some connection, and
about themselves.
Such exploration chains to other types. A favorite sport is dreaming up ways to catch
comrades unaware, or being thus caught themselves. Either is enjoyed since it provides
new understandings of their own being as well as that of others. One day, during the
eagle infatuation period, a new novice, perhaps eight years old, tagged along to roof-
top. After all were sitting down and starting on their lunch, an old-timer (twelve years
old) surreptitiously put a chunk of meat a half meter from the lad just at the moment a
great eagle was wheeling above. It plummeted straight down, stretching out its wings
mere inches before the small boy’s eyes, its wingtip grazing his fresh-shaved head. He
froze on the spot, became speechless and immobile. Instantly the others moved close
around to revive him with that protective loving tactility at which they all are expert.
When the child’s wits revived, with much laughter they pantomimed the event
to show him what had happened, and to get a better sense of it themselves. Thus
he suddenly became an intimate member of the group. These same monklets have
a prodigious ability to fall asleep in positions beyond normal Western imagination
50 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.12
Conjoint sleeping by novices sharpens their harmonization sensibilities (Zongkar Choede Monas-
tery, 2001).

(figure 1.12). And they can be virtually unarousable—perhaps because they are
accustomed to sleeping virtually anywhere, as in piles where individuals come and go
and shift about. Perhaps they sleep soundly because their motors run so fast when they
are awake.
One evening in my room some half dozen monklets drifted in to sit on the floor to
watch me talk in English with some older monks. One small tot sitting Buddhalike be-
gan swaying slightly. As his eyes slowly closed, his head would droop down and then
jerk up, in the way they fall asleep when sitting up. Eventually his cheek grazed the leg
of a nearby chair. Without awakening he moved his head against it. With it propped
precariously there, he fell deeply into sleep. When the chair was needed by another
monk, a comrade eased him to the floor still fast asleep. And the lad was not aroused
when two others dozed off on him as pillow. Later, I asked a twelve-year-old to take
him to his room. By that age these youngsters are very savvy about their comrades’
The Emptying of Ontology 51

inner workings, and among other things, they know effective ways to quickly wake
each other up. When he saw the tot was very fast asleep, he simply lifted him into
the chair, walked around behind and tipped it forward. The tot fell face first toward
the floor. I was aghast. But before I could even start to move, the designated waker-up
skipped around to catch the tot in midair. Though this required precise timing and
attention, he did not fail to notice my dismay. As he caught the tot, he turned his
head to me with that expression that says, ‘‘don’t worry, it’s a total snap.’’ Which,
I suppose, it was. The tot’s eyes instantly exploded into full awakeness, horror flash-
ing for a millisecond across his face, which as instantly gave way to smiling warmth
when in his comrade’s arms. With arms about each other, they then trundled off to
Because they so eagerly share with one another whatever new things they experi-
ence, individual differences in approach and attitude rarely result in squabbles. Instead
of standing pat on honor or an established sense of things (as is a norm in the West),
these youngsters eagerly latch onto the varied slants of others. Therefore all their sepa-
rate sensibilities constantly combine into a comprehensive whole that informs them
all. Individuality thus transforms into unity without sacrificing itself. This enables
them to grasp deeper subtleties of reality at their own speed, while aided by a richly
informative ambience touching them at personal levels.
It is these types of experiences that older monks ignore as if they were not happen-
ing (which is, in part, why I am making such a point of them here). This ignoring of
such events is perhaps crucial in that it allows the subliminal foundations of young-
sters’ lives to grow and become experientially sophisticated. With this particular type
of freedom offering a broad interstitial area of potential exploration, youngsters keep
their antennae tuned to the fluctuations of life around them, ready to quickly grasp
the exploratory possibilities of whatever new thing comes along. Alert to the moods
and feelings of those around them, they ferret out these possibilities without pressing
those not interested. In this manner they cast themselves with verve into the potpourri
of life—including such serious events as Tantric rituals—without clumsily disturbing
them. At first I was amazed to see novices joking, catching friends’ attention, passing
ideas, sharing snacks and tactility, and alerting others to momentary observations dur-
ing serious rituals. Eventually I realized that this enhanced rather than diminished a
ritual, simply by keeping their minds wide awake and thus connected to it. Westerners,
by generally doting on formal rules and legalistic constraints, might think: ‘‘How
awful.’’ But the alert antennae of these young monks help to keep their participatory
ardency within the context of the ritual (just as they do in ordinary life) (figure 1.13).
These practices also attract close attention to the ritual, simply because it is there and
offers an avenue for their zestful spirits to become constructively involved at their level
of appreciation. These not only enhance the power of the ritual vis-à-vis the novices
52 E Richard Sorenson

Figure 1.13
Novices raptly harmonize their participation into a Mahakala
Tantric ritual (Tarik Sakya Monastery, 1979).

but also confer on it a sense of personal validity and enjoyment in their young eyes
(figure 1.14).
Similarly, the education of novices was in the hands of personal teachers who
shaped their teaching to fit the individual proclivities of their students, just as Buddha
did with his disciples. Open heartfelt linkage between teacher and student was the
key and progress emerged in an ambience of this kind of joy. It conferred on formal
learning an experience not unlike that in which their play spontaneously infiltrates
the interstitial spaces of their lives while simultaneously interlinked to the hearts of
None of this was apparent very quickly. Only by going back again and again over
several years did what was happening become apparent. In the 1960s and 1970s the
traditional ambience seemed sturdy as a rock. In the 1980s it showed vulnerablity to the
managerial explicitness of the modern world. The Chinese military conquest of Tibet
was not the only thing destroying Tibet’s independently evolved type of civilization.
The monks and novices had by the thousands fled across the massive Himalayan
barrier (often with nothing but the clothes they wore) into sympathetic neighboring
nations to save their way of life. And all seemed rosy for them. For a while. As rem-
nants of an intellectual tradition famed across the world, they attracted international
aid. New monasteries were built for them in exile. But alien donors, though altruisti-
The Emptying of Ontology 53

Figure 1.14
In monasteries where rituals maintain a high level of evocative sophistication, young novices can
become quite intent (and expert) in their participation, a mood which carries on to nearby com-
rades and adults (Tarik Sakya Monastery, 1978).

cally motivated, were eager to introduce what they themselves highly valued. One
such value was the Western style of education. Tibetans had not previously experi-
enced crowded classrooms, scheduled curricula, and an externally imposed, categorical
rather than liminally integrated, type of educational management. By the 1980s these
had become structural parts of monasteries, which, for two thousand years, had not
had such things.
And so, along with the well-meant humanitarian effort, a less than heartfelt type of
teaching hitchhiked in—and then seized the ground. Rapport gave way to Western-
style behavioral codes geared to scheduled lesson plans ‘‘efficiently’’ dispensed en
masse in confined and crowded classrooms. No matter how hard a well-meaning
teacher tried to sustain a traditional empathetic ambience, the new setting did not
allow it. And course schedules reduced all but small fractions of the day for informal
54 E Richard Sorenson

inquisitiveness and liminal exploration. Like a rare orchid transplanted into arctic
climes, a subliminal foundation that has persisted in the deep foundations of monastic
life since the time of Buddha began withering silently away in a new house that had no
room for it.
The process is similar to what occurs in remote parts of the world where preconquest
modes of liminal and subliminal consciousness collapse under postconquest regula-
tion. In both it occurs when abstract concepts of social order literally enforced replace
that subtler social glue of liminal and subliminal intuitive harmoniousness.

Principal Tutors and Advisors

Of critical importance was the initial influence of the renowned Nyingmapa Tantrist,
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. This opened an eye to the erudition of the three abbots of
Gyudmed who nurtured me along: Losang Thinley Khensur, Losang Tenzin Khensur,
and Losang Nawang Khenpo. Geshe Tashi Gyaltsen, a graduate in advanced Buddhist
Studies with high distinction (Lharampa) from Gaden-Jangtse University, and Chosang
Phunrab, a Sanskrit scholar from the Central Institute for Higher Tibetan Studies were
principal translators. (See photos in figures 1.15a–f). Their explications were at times

Figure 1.15a Figure 1.15b

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Principal Nyingma Losang Thinley Khensur, Abbot of Gyudmed
Tantrist, Abbot of Schechan Tantric Monas- Tantric University (at Gyudmed, March
tery, occasional advisor to the Dalai Lama, 1980).
Royal Advisor to the King of Bhutan (at Sche-
chan Tantric Monastery, 1980).
Figure 1.15c Figure 1.15d
Losang Tenzin Khensur, Gyudmed Tantric Losang Nawang Khensur, Tantric master.
University (at Gyudmed, March 1982). Abbot of Gyudmed Tantric University (at
Gyudmed, Tantric Monastery March 1980).

Figure 1.15e Figure 1.15f

Geshe Lharmpa Tashi Gyaltsen, Tantric Chosang Phunrab, Sanskrit and Tibetan
scholar, administrator emeritus Gelug sect, scholar from the Central Institute for Higher
previous member of the Tibetan Parliament Tibetan Studies (at Zongkar Choede Monas-
in Exile (at Gaden-Jangtse Monastic Univer- tery, January 2001).
sity, 2001).
56 E Richard Sorenson

augmented by commentary from two other Gyudmed abbots: Tashi Dorjee Khensur
and Gosok Tulku Khensur. And I had the further good fortune to have at my disposal
at key times the translation skills of such respected Buddhist scholars as Geshe
Thubten Jinpa and Geshe Tashi Gyaltsen, both from Gaden Monastic University, as
well as the sophisticated linguistic insights of Tenzin Yangthak of Zongkar Chode
Monastery and Chosang Phunrab, a Sanskrit scholar from the Central Institute of
Higher Tibetan Studies. Contrastive perspectives on translation were provided not just
by these scholars, but also at odd times by Geshe Thupten Phegye, Geshe Gendun
Gyatso, Cheme Lama, Dorjee Gyalpo, Nawang Chosdak, Tsering Wangyal, Tseten
Phuntsok, Pema Nandak, and Thupten Phuntsok. The diversity of their approaches to
translation provided insights that eventually enabled a more precise grasp of Tibetan


This chapter has been adapted from a book in preparation on liminal consciousness. Preliminary
material was presented at the Third Biennial Conference of ‘‘Toward a Science of Consciousness,’’
Tucson, AZ, 2000, at the 74th Annual Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Albu-
querque, NM, 2000, and at the XXI World Congress of Philosophy, Istanbul, Turkey, 2003. For an
example of liminal consciousness development in aboriginal societies, see my chapter ‘‘Precon-
quest Consciousness’’ in Helmut Wautischer, ed., Tribal Epistemologies: Essays in the Philosophy of
Anthropology, 79–116 (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998). Copyright for the chapter presented here-
with and all related photographs is with E Richard Sorenson, 2006.

1. The analysis of Buddhist philosophical development presented here is not intended to expli-
cate the thought of Buddha but rather to reveal the historical human effort to produce a written
Buddhist philosophy after Buddha passed away. The project did not start as such and came to-
gether slowly after an unexpected meeting in the 1970s in Nepal with the renown Nyingmapa
Tantric scholar Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, back when I was in early stages of surveying the world
for possible research on diverse patterns of child behavior. That short session with him led to
many others, both in Nepal and at his home base in Bhutan. At about the same time Gyatsho
Tshering, Director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives in Dharamsala, met me at the
Smithsonian Institution shortly after I took up the task of directing the development of a new Na-
tional Human Studies Film Center. He invited me to meet with him and the Dalai Lama on my
upcoming visit to India. The Dalai Lama took interest in my research-film approach to document-
ing endangered traditional ways of life and opened Tibetan monasteries under his jurisdiction for
my studies. These monasteries included Tibet’s most sophisticated central Tantric teaching institu-
tion, Gyudmed Monastery (now Gyudmed Tantric University). At the time many children had
been swept along in the massive flow of Tibetan refugees fleeing the Chinese military conquest
of Tibet. Due to that monastery’s fundamentally humanitarian character, Gyudmed relaxed its
normal rule of only accepting novices after puberty. The youngest when I arrived had been
accepted at the age of five, simply because he had no place to go except to an uncle who was a
monk there.
The Emptying of Ontology 57

Because I lived within the residential areas of the monks and novices of Gyudmed, I had an un-
usual opportunity to observe aspects of child development otherwise unseeable. Gyudmed’s abbot
took a friendly personal interest in my work and at times would comment on the relationship of
Tantra philosophy to consciousness development. His seemingly offhand comments were always
sensible and helpful. But they also kept leading to new issues. These ultimately led to an annual
period of residence of one to three months in Gyudmed that continued for twenty years. During
this same period I was also able to live in and make comparative observations in Gaden Monastic
University and Zongkar Chode Monastery, while continuing to make observations in Kagyud and
Sakya monasteries in Nepal and Ladakh. When my first Gyudmed abbot tutor passed away, two
successive abbots volunteered to take up philosophical explanations where the last left off. Their
efforts ultimately provided a uniquely intimate and more comprehensive view of Tibetan philoso-
phy (as it is seen by the most erudite Tibetan lamas). Therefore my approach, rather than being
shaped by non-Tibetan academic disciplines (e.g., Tibetology and comparative religious studies),
focused entirely on the most educated indigenous Tibetan view. Though my involvement was
influenced by intellectual baggage from my training as a professional anthropologist, that profes-
sion fortunately stresses direct observation and interview during cross-cultural immersion.
The study led to numerous formal Tantric initiations conveyed by various abbots and then by
the Dalai Lama. These included such seminal Tantras as the Guhyasamaja (Tib: Sangwa-deupa),
Yamantaka (Tib: Jigje), and Heruka (Tib: Dechog). There was no thought at first of studying Tibetan
philosophy. My initial interest was simply to get some understanding of the impact of the
traditional Tibetan monastic ambience on children. However, it soon became evident that this
required at least some understanding of the Tibetan philosophy. I soon learned that Tantric
knowledge is restricted and carefully guarded. However, before he died, my first Gyudmed abbot
tutor completed the necessary orientation and initiations. He then asked the Dalai Lama whether
it might be useful to allow publication of some of what I had been learning. The Dalai Lama
agreed on grounds that it might help dispel the seriously misinformed ideas of Tantra circulating
in the West. It was at that time I began preparation of notes describing what I was learning.
During the spring and summer of 1999 I composed the initial draft in Washington, D.C., in the
home of the distinguished archaeologist, Marion Stirling. In January 2000 I presented it for review
and critique at Gyudmed Tantric University. It was first checked by Geshe Tashi Gyaltsen, the
representative of the Dalai Lama in the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, then more exhaustively by
the then abbot of Gyudmed, Losang Nawang Khenpo. The review took two months of daily ses-
sions of one to three hours each during which each English sentence was translated into Tibetan
first by Geshe Tashi Gyaltsen and then by Chosang Phunrab, a Tibetan Sanskrit scholar from the
Central Tibetan Institute of Higher Studies. Various subtleties of meaning were then discussed,
sometimes exhaustively, to make sure we had the right word. Sometimes we would spend an en-
tire session on the meaning of a single word. Tibetan-English dictionaries were soon abandoned as
overly simple or misrepresentative.
As part of my long-term Study of Child Behavior and Human Development in Cultural Isolates,
this project received vital support at various stages from the National Endowment for the
Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, National Institutes of Health, National Institute
for Mental Health, Institute for Intercultural Studies, Rachelwood Foundation, Public Law 480 of
the United States (for expenses in India), a line-item appropriation from the U.S. Congress, the
58 E Richard Sorenson

Women’s Committee of the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives,
Gyudmed Tantric University, Gaden Monastic University, and the National Human Studies Film
Center of the Smithsonian Institution. To these institutional sources, private contributions and
assistance were provided at critical junctures by Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Morgan, Drs. Lucy and
Jerry Waletzky, Dr. and Mrs. William H. Crocker, Mrs. Constance Mellon, Mrs. Marion Stirling
Pugh, Dr. Evelyn Nef, Ambassador Douglas and Consul General Ernestine Heck, Mrs. Lionel
Epstein, and S. C. Rockefeller.

2. This trait is most fully described in my ‘‘Preconquest Consciousness’’ (see the introduction to
this notes section).

3. The Abhidharmas are principally detailed analyses and systematizations of what is presented in
the Sutras. They consist mostly of listings, taxonomies, things to do, and so on. Some schools con-
sidered them equal in validity to the Sutras. Others held the Sutras to be the ultimate authority.
The main period for writing Abhidharma was approximately the third century B.C. to the end of
the first century A.D.; several schools developed their own versions.

4. The practices neglected included carrying salt in a hollowed horn (a violation of the rule forbid-
ding the storage of food), seeking permission for an action after the fact, and accepting gold and
silver (a violation of the rule forbidding wealth accumulation).

5. The most famous treatise of the Mahasanghika, ‘‘Great Subjects’’ (Mahavastu), was written col-
lectively. It speaks of reality as consisting of pure objects and pure thought, and (less explicitly)
antedates a central Mahayana view. Their Lokattaravada subschool then produced a transcenden-
tal view of Buddha that also became an important part of the Mahayana system. Ideas and posi-
tions seen in the compilation of the early versions of the Lalita-vistara by the Mahasanghika and
Sarvastivada schools reappear in such important Mahayana sutras as the Saddharma-pundarika,
the Tathagata-guhyaka, the Samadhi-raja, and the Dasa-bhumika. Though the basic Sarvastivada
position was a belief that everything exists, it was the famous Sarvastivada scholar, Vasubandhu,
who (in his Vijnnapti-matra-siddhi-sastra) showed external objects to be nothing more than mental
conceptions. He then became a Sautrantika monk—an illustration of the tolerance within schools
and of how new schools came into being from within old ones.

6. Though Buddha briefly introduced the term prajnaparamita in his early teachings at Vulture’s Peak
(Tib: Jagod Phungpo-ri), and though the idea had occasionally surfaced in realism-oriented schools,
it was not until the first century A.D. that clear literary presentations of these views began emerging.

7. Nagarjuna’s literary accomplishments include not just basic philosophical treatises like the
Mula-madhyamika-karika. He also wrote major logical dissertations, such as his famous ‘‘Deflecting
Objections’’ (Vigra-havya-vartani), inspirational works like the ‘‘Precious Garland’’ (Ratna-vali),
poetic works such as his ‘‘Seventy Stanza Treatise on Emptiness’’ (Sunyata-saptati), treatises on
the fundamentals of Buddhism, like ‘‘Illumination of the Ten Levels’’ (Dasabhumi-vibhasa-sastra),
discourses revealing the compassionate basis of Buddhism (Bodhicitta-vivarana), as well as detailed
Tantric texts such as his Sri-guhysasamaja-mahayoga-tantra-upa-datrama-satama-sharwa-kanama
(Tib: Do-sae) and Pentabida-sadhana (Tib: Dor-jae), of which the best known is his famous Tantric
text, Rimpa-nga.
The Emptying of Ontology 59

8. A popular logic technique of the time was the tetralemma, which placed all linguistic possibil-
ities within one of four possible conditions: (1) it exists, (2) it does not exist, (3) it both exists and
does not exist, (4) it neither exists nor does not exist. Using this tightly defined arena of argu-
ment, Nagarjuna showed the fundamental fallaciousness of objective thinking. His arguments
were irrefutable by the logic of the time, and severely challenged the Indic scholarly establish-
ment. Unable to refute his arguments, the Nyaya school of Hindic logic simply refused to confront
Nagarjuna’s logic on grounds that it was nihilism.

9. For example, in his ‘‘Deflecting Objections’’ (Vigra-havya-vartani; Tib: Tsod-dhog) Nagarjuna

argued that since both subject and object of perception are interdependent, they are therefore mu-
tually conditioned. Thus neither has genuine self-existence. He did not consider this an argument
that knowledge itself does not exist (as some of his critics were claiming), only that knowledge as
an object has no independent existence.

10. In his widely admired poetic treatises the Catuh-sataka-karika (‘‘Four Hundred Verses on the
Teachings of Buddha’’) and the Yogacara-catuh-sataka-sastra (‘‘The Experientialist Four Hundred’’).

11. Reductio ad absurdum is a form of logic that refutes by showing contradictory or absurd con-
sequences that emerge when rigorous logical analysis is applied. There are several types—for ex-
ample, disproving an argument by showing that its conclusion is logically contradictory; indirect
proof by which an argument is invalidated by reference to previously proved propositions; or
demonstration of the validity of an argument by indirectly showing that the contradictory argu-
ment is absurd. In the collective sense, the term refers to anything that when pushed to logical
extremes is reduced to self-contradictory nonsense. Such was the power of Nagarjuna’s compre-
hensive reductio ad absurdum of all stated positions that the Prasangika school eschewed any
ontological position.

12. Although an earlier Yogacara-bhumi by Sangharaksa may have provided philosophical

impetus, it was Asanga’s Yogacara-bhumi-sastra that directly influenced the development of the
Yogacara school. In this text he describes five aspects of yogic realization: (1) Bodhisattva activity
(Tib: sayi-ngoe-zhi-duwa), (2) the cause of Bodhisattva realization (Tib: zhi-duwa), (3) the number
of Bodhisattva paths (Tib: namdrang-duwa), (4) the three kinds of meaning (Tib: tenla-wabpa-
duwa), and (5) the nature of mind and its kinds (Tib: nampar-shepe-go-duwa).

13. These three forms of mind are: (1) forms that mind imagines and gives names to ( parikalpita-
svabhava); (2) the unimaginable, unnamable pure form of form perceived experientially by con-
sciousness ( paratantra-svabhava); and (3) awareness of the transcendental emptiness from which
all sense of form emerges ( parinispanna-svabhava).

14. The Nyingmapa order, for example, uses a sixfold system. A clever taxonomist might find
other interesting ways to set them forth. For an explanation of the Nyingmapa approach see the
Nyingmapa section.

15. The ‘‘winds-of-life’’ are the emotive forces that propel life. Tantrists generally subdivide them
into five major types: (1) prana-vayu, the heart-centered energy (referred to as the ‘‘life-sustaining-
wind’’ in classical Tibetan Tantra), (2) apana, the genital-centered energy (or ‘‘downward-clearing-
wind’’), (3) samana, the navel-centered energy (or ‘‘fire-wind’’), (4) udana, the throat-centered
60 E Richard Sorenson

energy (or ‘‘upward-flowing [or verbal] wind’’), and (5) vyana, physical energy (or the ‘‘pervasive
wind of movement’’). The Kalachakra Tantra, however, speaks of five additional energies, making
ten winds in all: (6) naga, the northwest-flowing energy, (7) kurma, the southeast-flowing energy,
(8) krkala, the southwest-flowing, firelike energy, (9) devadatta, the northeast-flowing, waterlike
energy, and (10) dhananjaya, the earthlike, central-flowing energy.

16. The personified symbolic entities representing positive mental states appear on a wheel-like
diagram (mandala). Concentration on their appearance, attributes, and accouterments enables
novices to more easily recognize the actual experiences when they occur within one. These sym-
bols are not the real meaning of a mandala, which can only be attained by intensive concentra-
tion of the consciousness states represented by its symbolic structure. There are four different
basic types of mandalas. Three are material: painted on cloth, limned in pulverized colored stone,
or a sculpted three-dimensional representation. One is nonmaterial and consists of visualizing the
actual mental states—not the symbols themselves—within one’s own body.

17. The stages are somewhat arbitrary. For example, Nagarjuna considered ‘‘isolation of body’’ a
Generation Stage–level practice, leaving the Completion Stage with only five levels.

18. Clear-light (Tib: wosel) is a metaphorical term for the pure elemental state of consciousness.
Though it is the nonconceptualized pure pristine form, ideas about its nature can be conceptual-
ized. Tantrists, for example, speak of ‘‘objective clear-light’’ ( yul-kyi-wosel), which is emptiness
conceptualized as an object. They also speak of ‘‘subjective clear-light’’ ( yulchen-kyi-wosel), which
is the mentality that is conceptualizing emptiness. There are two types of subjective clear-light: (1)
similitude clear-light ( pei-wosel), which is the understanding of emptiness in the subtlest possible
conceptual way, and (2) actual clear-light (dhon-kyi-wosel), which is the nonconceptual experience
of the nonduality of pure emptiness. Perfect clear-light is also called ‘‘perfect consciousness’’
(sherab-yeshi). In addition, there is death clear-light (chiwa-wosel), which is a similitude clear-light
that appears briefly just before the final moment of death.

19. In Tantra, emptiness is perceived along with the experience of the bliss that occurs when con-
sciousness enters the visualized ‘‘white-wind-drop’’ either at the tip of the ‘‘heart chakra’’ (as in
‘‘mantra-drop practice’’), at the forehead chakra (as in ‘‘light-drop practice’’), or at the genitalia
(as in ‘‘white-wind-drop practice’’).

20. The source from which these eighty terms were derived is the arcane, somewhat poetic allu-
sive language of the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra. Around the end of the second century, Nagarjuna
clarified these terms consistent with his view that verbal concepts can be used as stepping-stones
to understandings more profound than those possible with words. A millennium later Tsong-
khapa reduced Nagarjuna’s poetic approach to the taxonomic specificity revealed in table 1.1.
Even though each step toward verbal specificity further distances one from the original Tantric
sensibilities, movement to these deeper levels can be sustained by suggestive words. Translation
of Tsongkhapa’s effort, as set forth in table 1.1, was bedeviled by contradictions and took several
weeks of deliberation by Tantric scholars from Gyudmed Tantric University, Gaden University,
Zongkar Chode Monastery, the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, and the Library of
Tibetan Works and Archives. Interestingly they were not much fazed that each new attempt pro-
duced different English renditions. One said: ‘‘Well, of course you can fish out different words
The Emptying of Ontology 61

depending on how your verbal mind is set.’’ They considered all intensively produced versions to
be similarly (if not equally) accurate (in the sense that they possessed the ability to turn minds
toward actual Tantric insights). Table 1.1 is an example of how nonverbalizable aspects of basic
Tantra can be glossed with words that move across sweeps of time and differences in languages
and culture, and still expose the underlying core levels of human consciousness.

21. In Tantric terminology the first joy occurs as the white-wind-drop moves from the crown
chakra to the throat chakra; the second joy, from throat to heart chakra; the third joy, from heart
to navel chakra; and the fourth joy, from navel to genital chakra. When the procedure is reversed
step by step back to the crown chakra, the intensity of joy increases. This reverse practice, how-
ever, is difficult and risky if one is not properly prepared. It can too easily then become unmanage-
able and lead to derangement, some say even death.

22. While breathing in, one visualizes the experience of om coming into the heart, while breath-
ing out the experience of hum is visualized going farther and farther out in all directions, and in
the interval between the inward and outward breaths, ah is visualized positioned at the throat
where it remains after the breath is out (considered very difficult).

23. During the Generation Stage phase of isolation of speech, Vajra Mantra repetition only shields
mind from ordinary conceptual rumination by preoccupying it. The value of the shield, once it is
in place, is that one can more easily notice the experiential essences that underlie and propel
speech. When these essences are experienced, one is able to regard ordinary speech as ultimately
vacuous in and of itself.

24. In Tantric metaphorical terminology, the process begins with the ‘‘life-bringing-practice’’ of
the ‘‘three-drops’’—that is, the ‘‘mantra-drop’’ in the ‘‘central-chamber’’ of the ‘‘heart chakra,’’
the ‘‘light-drop’’ at the forehead channel tip, and the ‘‘white-wind-drop’’ at the genitalia. They
all move the gross ‘‘winds-of-life’’ toward and into the two ‘‘side-channels’’ and finally into the
‘‘central-channel’’ (also referred to as the ‘‘life-channel’’).

25. The root text of Guhyasamaja Tantra describes the ultimate nature of mind as rootless, base-
less, placeless, signless, colorless, shapeless, beyond the sense of sense organs, and unperceivable
by the normal physiological senses. Nagarjuna, in his ‘‘Sixty Logical Verse Treatises’’ (Yukti-
sastika), speaks of it as rootless, objectless, placeless, the result of ignorance, without beginning
or end, and undiscoverable by analyzing mind part by part.

26. Tantrists also speak of the ‘‘subtlest-wind-of-life’’ as the ‘‘life-holding-wind’’ or more simply
as the ‘‘subtlest wind.’’ There are two types of subtlest wind: (1) the ‘‘ordinary life-holding-
wind,’’ which consists of the five ordinary organ senses (sight, sound, tactility, taste, and smell),
and (2) the extremely subtle ‘‘imperishable life-holding-wind.’’ The first is too gross to combine
with the Three Appearances. The second can do so by virtue of being the most basic level of
consciousness—that is, actual (not metaphorical) clear-light. It can therefore also combine with
the most fundamental sense of form that can be perceived after the Three Appearances have
been clearly experienced. In his commentary on (Nagarjuna’s) Rimpa-nga, Tsongkhapa (in his
Rim-nga Seldron) speaks of the Gyumae-lus arising only when the Fourth Joy clearly perceives itself
to be a single entity with emptiness—a condition occurring only with the complete realization
62 E Richard Sorenson

(during the Fourth Empty) of the most subtle possible conceptual understanding of pure con-
sciousness ( pei wosel). In addition he states that the seed and sole source of gyumae-lus is ‘‘subtlest
wind merged with subtlest consciousness.’’

27. According to Aryadeva’s Carya-samgraha-pradipa (Tib: Cho-du), subtlest body ( gyumae-lus) can
be realized during sleep by individuals who have gained the ablity to reduce the eighty types
of ‘‘gross-consciousness-and-wind’’ to the Three Appearances and Four Empties. Such liberation
enables one to perceive more fundamental levels of consciousness. The Cho-du also informs us
that when awareness of these levels is transferred into sleep, gyumae-lus will arise when the most
basic conceptual level of consciousness briefly appears in the going-to-sleep process. The Cho-du
also tells us that our own body, when seen in dream, is like the gyumae-lus body in that it too is
made up of extremely subtle consciousness and subtlest wind. Such metaphors enable Tantrists to
transform dream-body into gyumae-lus while dreaming. In a contrastive explanation Seng Dengpa
(a disciple of Marpa), in his Rim-nga-don-nga-pa, describes four levels of sleep state (gross, less
gross, subtle, and subtlest) through which sleep must proceed before a dreamlike perception of
the most basic conceptual level of sleep consciousness (‘‘sleep-clear-light’’) can mix with the
most basic emotive force of life (‘‘subtlest wind’’) to produce an incomplete (but nonetheless
viable) gyumae-lus. To do so, he states, one must first reduce the ‘‘winds-of-life’’ to their most basic
level by intensive practice of the Three Appearances and Four Empties. Some commonly under-
stood simpler practices that facilitate realizing gyumae-lus during dream state are: avoidance of in-
tense concentration on any single object during daytime, perceiving daytime appearances as if
dreams, and strong determination to recognize the true nature of ‘‘dream-body’’ while sleeping.

28. Two widely employed general procedures for introducing consort union into sleep are dis-
cussed in Vajradhara’s extensive ‘‘Commentary on the Root Text of Guhyasamaja’’ (Vajra-mala).
If during the awake state a strong intention is developed to recognize dream as dream (while
dreaming), the ability will soon follow. It further states that those who are able to recognize
clear-light in sleep will automatically know the true nature of dream-body. The Vajra-mala also
presents procedures that facilitate introduction of the Four Empties into sleep and dream state,
such as ‘‘Internal Vajra Mantra practice’’ (i.e., experientially, not verbally) to the Fourth Empty.
This enables one to recognize the occurrence of the ‘‘Empties’’ during onset of sleep. A vivid oc-
currence of the Fourth Empty of sleep will occur if breathing momentarily stops when the emo-
tive forces of the ‘‘life-wind’’ are reduced to a stable appreciation of their basic substrates (in
Tantric vocabulary, when the winds move into the ‘‘central channel’’ and persist there). Such
practices are called ‘‘mixing the Four Empties into sleep state.’’ If, during sleep, breathing only
weakens (instead of momentarily ceasing), then the introduction of the crucial Fourth Empty
into sleep is usually not noticed. When the ‘‘sleep Four Empties’’ are recognized as such, the ordi-
nary emotive forces of life (‘‘gross-winds-of-life’’) will reduce into their subtler substrates. If reduc-
tion to the Fourth Empty causes interruption of breathing, those who have mastered the Three
Appearances and Four Empties will be able to perceive ‘‘sleep-clear-light.’’ They will then retain
memories of its appearance after waking, which then facilitate further practice. The Kalachakra
(Dhuekor) Tantra provides an alternative practice: although the ‘‘white-semen-drops’’ residing at
the heart and at the sexual organ normally lead to deep and dreamless sleep, if a small part of
them are visualized at the throat, or at the base of the genitalia, revelatory dreaming will occur
The Emptying of Ontology 63

instead. Additionally the Kalachakra informs us that when part of the white-wind-drops at the
crown move to the genitalia, bliss is produced, and that each repetition increases the level of bliss.
The Guhyasamaja, Yamantaka, and Heruka Tantras present additional practices: if one visualizes
the movement of the ‘‘white-wind-drops’’ normally residing at the crown to the throat, then
from throat to heart, from heart to navel, and finally from navel to genitalia, the Four Joys are
produced, in that order.

29. The two mental practices are ‘‘body compression’’ ( je-zhig) and ‘‘body evanescence’’ (rilbu-
zinpa), into the ‘‘central chamber of the heart chakra.’’ This becomes possible after an incomplete
gyumae-lus body has been generated. In the first practice all the entities of a Tantric mandala are
visualized dissolving into the practitioners’ bodies, where they are compressed until they vanish
into the ‘‘central chamber’’ of one’s heart chakra (in the poetic phraseology of the Cho-du and
Rimpa-nga, ‘‘like an ice cube melting into water’’). The second proceeds similarly (but without
the mandala). Instead of dissolving into the heart chakra, the compressed body is visualized
slowly evanescing like the ‘‘evaporation of a breath mist left on glass’’ into the heart chakra. At
the beginning of either procedure, the practitioner’s mind is the subject, and emptiness is the
object. As the visualized body vanishes into the ‘‘central chamber’’ of the heart chakra, subject
and object merge and are no longer distinguishable entities. As they vanish, so does subject-object
thinking. The previously uncompleted gyumae-lus is then completed as the last vestiges of concep-
tual thought and ego-oriented emotion fall away. This achieves the first level of unity ( pang-pa-
zung-jug) and sets the stage for the sixth (and last) level of the Completion Stage.

30. The thirteen entities of the Yamantaka mandala are (1) Yamantaka (as the central principle
entity conjoined with consort (Rolangma) as a single entity), (2) Timuk-shinje-shae (destroyer of
ignorance), (3) Serna-shinje-shae (destroyer of miserliness), (4) Dochag-shinje-shae (destroyer of
attachment), (5) Tradog-shinje-shae (destroyer of jealousy), (6) Tsatsika (a consort), (7) Phagmo (an-
other consort), (8) Yangchenma (another consort), (9) Gori (another consort), (10) Thowa-shinje-
shae (hammer wielder), (11) Yukpa-shinje-shae (stick wielder), (12) Pema-shinje-shae (lotus essence),
and (13) Raldi-shinje-shae (sword wielder). See Khedrup Je’s commentary (Kagyama) on the Gener-
ation Stage of Yamantaka for more explicit details of the Yamantaka mandala entities.

31. For more elaborate details see Khedrup Je’s commentary ‘‘Great Generation Stage of Ngod
Drub Gyatso’’ (Kye-rim Chenmo Ngod Drub Gyatso).

32. For further information on how Tantras have been classified historically, by whom, and why,
see Chakpa Rolpai Dorjee’s seventeenth-century Druptha, a concise form of Tsongkhapa’s dis-
course on the subject.

33. A variety of ancient texts comprised the scholarly literature cited at appropriate times by the
most highly educated Gelugpa Tantric masters at Gyudmed Tantric University and Gaden Monas-
tic University. They reflect the ‘‘in-house’’ traditional Gelugpa view rather than the more compre-
hensive efforts of Western Tibetologists. Sometimes the titles they cite are literal translations of
the original Sanskrit titles. At other times they were more creative. Taken as a whole they reveal
the magnitude of their scholarship and nature of their orientation. Although not all the texts
from the early period of Buddhist philosophical development were introduced to Tibet, knowl-
edge of a considerable corpus has long been available to Tibetans through translation into
64 E Richard Sorenson

Tibetan—that is, more than 3,000 translated commentaries and explanatory works and more than
1,000 comprehensive texts of ‘‘Buddha-word’’ organized by Bromston in the eleventh century (as
the Tanjur and Kanjur). During my two decades of tutelage by three abbots of Tibet’s foremost
Tantric teaching institutions, I made quick notes of texts as they were mentioned. These are pre-
sented below. My knowledge of them, and of their importance, came to me by word of mouth
from my tutors.
To make the Sanskrit foundations of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy accessible to Western readers,
I worked with highly qualified Tibetan translators in concert with my tutors. Long discussions led
to the Anglicized Sanskrit and Tibetan titles arranged below. Where the original Sanskrit texts
were not available, we used the Tibetan translations as the basis for the transformations into En-
glish (as will be easily noticeable by any Sanskrit scholar). The Sanskrit versions underwent a Tibe-
tanization process, which introduced alterations to make them more meaningful to Tibetans. This
was necessary due to four main factors. First, the Tibetan and Sanskrit phonetic sensibilities are not
always compatible. Tibetans pay attention to sounds that Indo-Europeans do not (and sometimes
do not even hear and cannot pronounce). And vice versa. Their alphabets are therefore incongru-
ent. This pronunciation problem is further complicated by dialect differences across Tibet itself,
where the Tibetan spoken in one region is sometimes barely understandable in others. This
becomes most pronounced in regions where physical isolation sped linguistic divergence (e.g.,
Tawang, Kham, and Ladakh). Even in such modernized areas as Lhasa today, dialect variations
are heard in different districts, even from monastery to monastery.
Second, cultural factors have fostered literary variation. In the Tibetan monasteries we found
that the Tibetan scholar-monks have few qualms about explaining texts according to the circum-
stances of their interests or the need to make them more intelligible to their students (not unlike
the manner in which preconquest peoples name things according to how they affect their partic-
ular interests and sense of well-being). There are long titles, for example, that summarize an aspect
of a text’s contents according to local sensibility and short ones to identify them quickly among
themselves. This leads to creativity when translating Sanskrit into Tibetan, and again when trans-
lating Tibetan into English. The tinkering fosters local rapport with texts ultimately meant to
convey evanescent Tantric understandings. Finally, traditionally the monk in charge of the
monastery’s library could arbitrarily identify, organize, sort, and shelve without being second-
guessed. And when texts were reprinted, helpful revisions, annotations, and alterations were often
embedded. The result of such tinkering was that the older great monasteries became repositories
of irreplaceable troves of independent thinking and reworking of ideas as they evolved over time.
The disadvantage appears when internationally consistent catalogs and bibliographies have to be
Third, serious orthographic differences between English, Tibetan, and Sanskrit exist. In an
effort to give a sense of order to Tibetan literature, Western scholars have produced an elaborately
contrived standard that has the advantage of internal precision and a close relationship to Tibetan
ecclesiastical script. Its disadvantage is that it relates poorly to actual Tibetan monastic parlance
and bibliographical habit. Particularly problematic is its nonintuitiveness, which leaves that
system so user-unfriendly that few Tibetans and Westerners master it—a drawback that also
lends itself to transcription errors, which then get preserved in such important undertakings as
library catalogs and learned bibliographies. So what to do? In this presentation we have departed
The Emptying of Ontology 65

from this Western approach, not because we do not respect it as an impressive and useful intel-
lectual effort, but to be anthropological and more accurately reflect the real life of monastic
Fourth, there is the problem of destruction. During the centuries of Tibetan independence,
established monasteries meticulously preserved their priceless texts and closely guarded them. Vir-
tually all these collections were deliberately destroyed by the Chinese military conquest of Tibet
in the 1960s and 1970s. This extraordinarily narrow-minded deed removed from the world’s
purview the greatest trove of original Tibetan philosophical thinking that existed, essentially leav-
ing only the view presented by the Tanjur and Kanjur (both of which are the product of the view-
point of a single person). These have been extensively republished and have largely replaced the
older, more varied monastic collections in monasteries that have managed to reestablish them-
selves in exile. Lost is the literary material that represented the true richness of Tibetan philoso-
phy and the inductive insights that produced it. Only in a few monasteries in peripheral areas of
greater Tibet, beyond Chinese military reach (e.g., Ladakh, Bhutan, and Tawang) have minor non-
standardized collections been preserved.
Due to the Tibetan penchant for altering titles, we have in this bibliography selected the Tibe-
tan titling versions that seemed to have widest currency among the scholar monks. To these we
applied the English alphabet phonetically as closely as possible to the Tibetan phonemic structure
heard in Gyudmed and Gaden. As for the Sanskrit titles, we found variations in spelling and word-
ing during library searches in the West. Therefore we have adopted spellings and wording that
satisfied our Tibetan Sanskrit speakers or where a particular spelling was widely used. In these
necessarily somewhat arbitrary efforts, adhered to the overall guidance of the current abbot of
Gyudmed Tantric University, Losang Nawang Khenpo, a sophisticated and unusually widely read
and highly educated scholar of Tibetan philosophical literature. I was also very fortunate to
have several years of sustained intellectual effort by Geshe Tashi Gyaltsen, an English-speaking
advanced scholar of Tibetan literature and logic from Gaden who spent several months a year for
several years with me at Gyudmed and Gaden and in the Dalai Lama’s Library of Tibetan Works
and Archives in Dharamsala. Also of considerable help in devising Anglicized presentations of the
Tibetan titles, I had the advice of Thupten Yangdak, a highly regarded translator with twenty
years continuous experience presenting Tibetan philosophical teachings to Western students in
Europe; the dedicated efforts of Chosang Phunrab, a Tibetan graduate in Sanskrit Studies from
the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies at Sarnath, who was particularly instrumental in
sorting out inconsistencies in Sanskrit titles; and a review by Losang Norbu Shastri, the principal
Sanskrit authority at that Institute.
Initially I thought the task of compiling a listing of the literature on which the two decades
of teachings was based would simply be a matter of jotting each title down. This proved to be
a deeply misplaced optimism. Eventually I realized my idea of what constitutes literature was a
product of habits of mind created by our commercial type of civilization. It initially made me
assume that written works always have specific formal titles. Eventually I realized they do so in
our culture because of copyright needs and stablized identities for academic usage.
As for the nuts and bolts of the references presented here: the initial citation is an Anglicized
phonetic presentation of whichever language (Tibetan or Sanskrit) the text was originally written
in. Where Sanskrit works have been variously identified (or have close derivatives by a similar
66 E Richard Sorenson

name), I have said ‘‘also’’ and then listed them. I have used ‘‘or’’ between Tibetan listings where I
found marked variations in titling for the same text. I was happy to discover that a few simple
basic orthographic rules were sufficient for general understanding. These are as follows: the short
form for a vowel is represented simply by the vowel itself; the long form has an appended ‘‘e.’’ In
a few cases where the vowel sound was intermediate between long and short, I have inserted ‘‘d’’
where my Tibetan mentors thought it improved clarity. Similarly, soft forms of consonants are
followed by ‘‘h.’’
I had the much-appreciated help of English-speaking Tibetan scholars from different monas-
teries and regions in devising this simple phonetic approach. It has not yet been standardized,
since that would require a fully representative synod of Tibetan Buddhist scholars from the major
Tibetan teaching monasteries of all the sects and regions to smooth out dialect differences. But
even with its partially unresolved spelling inconsistencies, it seems to work. We tried it out on
many English-speaking Tibetan scholar-monks and found they could quickly identify the text we
had in mind. By comparison, they were not usually able to do so from the elaborate Western aca-
demic transliteration system. It seems to trip up the way most humans read (though that is not
the reason we have left it aside). We admire it for the kind of precision that can come from being
script-based, but it is still not quite a Rosetta Stone. Tibetans have long been intellectually flexible.
And just as with pronunciation, there are different renderings of script. Such factors made access
to Tibetan literature (particularly the more arcane) more difficult than it needs to be. That was our
principal reason for making the titles more readable for the average English speaker. Greater uni-
formity exists for the Sanskrit literature, which has been in the domain of international scholars
much longer. But even there, differences in transliteration and spelling still crop up along with
variations in titling (examples of which appear here and there below). While there may be more
in their knowledge base, here are the texts that were mentioned in our sessions with the Tibetan
Tantric lamas:
Anangavajra, c. eighth century
Prajnopaya-viniscaya-siddhi. ‘‘Clear Mental Appreciation of Ethical Action.’’
Aryadeva (Tib: Phag-pa Lha), 225–250 A.D.
Abhibodhi-kramo-padesha (Tib: Nyon-par Jangchub-pae Rimpae Men-nyag), ‘‘A Way to Practice
Aksara-sastra (Tib: Yi-ge Gya-pa), ‘‘Hundred Syllables.’’
Carya-melapaka-pradipa [see also: Carya-samgraha-pradipa] (Tib: Chod-du [or] Chopa Du-pae
Don-mae), ‘‘Clear-Light on the Completion Stage [of the Guhysamaja.Tantra].’’
Catuh-sataka-karika [see also: Yogacara-catuh-sataka-sastra-karika] (Tib: Tenchoe Gyapa [or]
Tenchoe Zhi Gyapa Zhe Chawae Tsig Liu Chepa), ‘‘Four Hundred Verses on the Teachings of
Citta-visuddhi-prakarana [see also: Citta-visuddhi-nama-prakarana] (Tib: Sem-kyi Drip-jong [or]
Sem-kyi Dripa Nampar Jong-wa Zhe Ja-wa Rabtu Jed-pa), ‘‘Practices by which Mental Delu-
sions can be Eliminated.’’
Jnana-sara-samuccaya (Tib: Yeshe Kuntud [or] Yeshe Nying-po Kuntud), ‘‘The All Encompassing
Sataka-sastra [see also: Sata-sastra] (Tib: Tenchoe Gya-pa), ‘‘Hundred Verse Treatise.’’
The Emptying of Ontology 67

Skhalita-prama-dana-yukti-hetu-siddhi (Tib: Tse-ma Trul-wa Pongwae Ngo-drup), ‘‘Preventing

Errors by Logic.’’
Svadhisthana-krama-prabheda (Tib: Dhag Jin-lap [or] Dhag Jin-gyi Lap-pae Rimpa Nampar Yewa),
‘‘Clear Presentation of the Stages of Self Perfection’’ [regarding transformation of subtle wind
into subtlemost body].
Yogacara-catuh-sataka-sastra (Tib: Uma Zhi Gya-pa), ‘‘Experientialist Four Hundred’’ [on
Asanga, fifth century A.D.
Abhidharma-samuccaya (Tib: Choe Nyon-pa Kun Tud), ‘‘Compendium of Abhidharma.’’
Arya-samdhi-nirmocana-bhasya (Tib: Do-de Gong-drel [or] Phagpa Gong-pa Sabmo Ngepar Drel-
pae Nampar Jed-pa), ‘‘Commentary on the Thought Underlying Sakyamuni’s Bodhisattva
Sutra’’ [also referred to as the ‘‘Third Wheel Sutra’’].
Bodhisattva-bhumi [see also: Bodhi-bhumi], (Tib: Jang Sa [or] Jang Chub Sem-pae Sa), ‘‘Explana-
tion of the Bodhisattva Stage’’ [the only surviving portion of the original Sanskrit version of
Asanga’s Yogacara-bhumi-shastra].
Dharmakaya-sadharana-stotra (Tib: Choe-kui Yonten Thumong Mayin Pae Todpa), ‘‘The Extraor-
dinary Qualities of the Truth Body of Buddha.’’
Dhyana-pradipa (Tib: Sam-ten Gyi Don-mae), ‘‘Clarifying Single-Pointed Meditation.’’
Madhyanta-vibhaga-sastram [see also: Madhyanta-vibhaga-tika] ‘‘Commentary on [Maitreya’s]
Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra’’ [on centers and extremes].
Mahayana-samgraha [see also: Mahayana-sutra-samgraha-sastra] (Tib: Theg-due [or] Thegpa Chen-
poe Due-pa), ‘‘A Compendium of Mahayana Teachings’’ [including a summary of the lesser
known Mahayana doctrines].
Mahayana-sutra-lamkara [Verses on the fundamentals of Mahayana].
Mahayana-uttara-tantra-sastra-vyakhya [see also: Uttara-tantra-sastra (and) Mahayana-uttara-
tantra-sastra-vrtti] (Tib: Gyud La Mae Drel-wa [or] Theg-pa Chenpoi Gyud La Mae Drel-wa),
‘‘Commentary on [Maitreya’s] Mahayana-uttara-tantra’’ [regarding the ultimate nature of
Maitreya-sadhana (Tib: Phakpa Jampae Drub-thap), ‘‘Maitreya Visualization Practice.’’
Prajnaparamita-sadhana (Tib: Sherab-kyi Pharol Tu Chenma Drub-thab), ‘‘Method for Practicing
Ratnagotra-vibhaga [see also: Ratnagotra-vibhaga-mahayana-uttara-tantra-shastra] (Tib: Thegpa
Chenpoi Gyud Lama Rabtu Ye-wae Tenchoe), ‘‘The Jewel of Supreme Tantra.’’
Tattva-viniscaya (Tib: De Nyid Nam Nge), ‘‘Clear Ascertainment of Emptiness’’ [explanations of
the 100,000 stanzas of the Bhumi Sutra, the 25,000 stanzas of the Nyitri Sutra, and the 8,000
stanzas of the Gye Tong-pa Sutra].
Yogacara-bhumi-shastra [see also: Bhumi-vastu (and) Pancha-bhumi] (Tib: Sa De Nga), ‘‘The [five]
Experiential Levels of Yogic Practice.’’
Asvaghosa (Tib: Ta-yang), first to second century A.D.
Buddha-carita (Tib: Sangye Kyi Zhepa), ‘‘Accomplishments of Buddha Sakyamuni.’’
Mahayana-sraddhopada-sastra (Tib: Theckpa Chenpor Dedpa Pel-wae Tenchoe), ‘‘Awaking Faith
in Mahayana.’’
68 E Richard Sorenson

Atisa (Tib: Jowo-je), eleventh century

Bodhi-patha-pradipa (Tib: Jangchub Lam Gyi Dolma), ‘‘The Way of the Bodhisattvas’’ [also
referred to as ‘‘Lamp Illuminating the Path to Enlightenment’’].
Bhavaviveka, fifth to sixth century A.D.
Madhyamika-hrdaya-karika [see also: Madhyamaka-hrdaya-vrtti-tarkajvala] (Tib: Uma Nying-po),
‘‘The Blazing Essence of the Middle Way.’’
Prajna-pradipa-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti [see also: Prajna-pradipa-sastra] (Tib: Sherab Dolma [or]
Uma Tsawae Drel-wa Sherab Dolmae Gyacher Drelpa), ‘‘Wisdom Lamp’’ [an extensive com-
mentary on Nagarjuna’s Mula-madhyamaka-karika].’’
Bromston, 1008–1064
(Translated much of the early Sanskrit Buddhist literature into Tibetan and assembled more than
4,000 texts as the Kanjur and Tanjur.)
Buddha Maitreya
Abhisamaya-lamkara [see also: Abhisamaya-lamkara-prajnaparamita-upadesa-sastra] (Tib: Sherab-
kyi Pharol Tu Chinpae Me-ngag Gi Tenchoe Nyon Tok Gyen Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘The Gem of Emer-
gent Clear Realization with Instructions on Perfecting Wisdom’’ [elucidates the meaning of
Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga-sutra [see also: Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga-karika] (Tib: Choe Dang
Choe Nyid Nampar Jed-pa), ‘‘Distinguishing Emptiness Clearly from Subjects and Objects.’’
Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra (Tib: We Dang Tha Nampar Jed-pae Tsig Liu Jed-pa [or] Wae-tha Nam-je
Dang Chos Dang Chos Ngi Nam-je Tsa Drel), ‘‘Distinguishing the Middle Way from Extreme
Mahayana-sutra-lamkara (Tib: Theg-pa Chenpo Dode-yi Gyen Zhe Jawae Tsig Liu Jed-pa), ‘‘Qual-
ities of the Great Vehicle’’ [often referred to in English as The Scripture Sutra].
Mahayana-uttara-tantra [see also: Uttara-tantra (and) Ratna-gotra-vibhaga-mahayana-uttara-
tantra-sastra-sutra] (Tib: Gyud Lamae [or] Theg-pa Chenpoi Gyud Lamae Rabtu Ye-wae
Tenchoe), ‘‘Jewel Sutra of Tantra on Supreme Buddha Nature’’ [the root text of the Ratna-
Samdhi-nirmocana-sutra (Tib: Do De Gong Drel), ‘‘Explanation of the Profound Secrets’’ [Also
referred to in English as ‘‘The Intention Sutra’’].
Buddha Sakyamuni
Acala (Tib: Miyo-wa), ‘‘Self-Generation of the Unmoveable Acala’’ [an explanation of consort
Aksayamati-nirdesa-sutra (Tib: Lo-drel me Jig-pae Tenpae Dho), ‘‘Aksayamati’s Teachings.’’
Arya-dakini-vajra-panch-mahatantra-raja-kalpa-nama (Tib: Gyud Tak Nyi [or] Thak-pa Khadroma
Dorjee-gur Zhe Ja-wae Gyud-kyi Gyalpo Chenpo Tak-pa), ‘‘Mother Tantra.’’
Arya-karma-varana-visuddhi-nama-mahayana-sutra (Tib: Lay-kyi Dripa Nampar Dhak-pa Dho [or]
Phagpa Lay-kyi Dripa Nampar Dhak-pa Zhe Ja-wa Thegpa Chenpoe Dho), ‘‘The Great Sutra
Path of the Aryas who Overcome Karma.’’
Aryadaya-sama-tebi-daya-kebi-kalpa-maharaja-nama (Tib: Phakpa Nyisu Med Pa Nyam-pa Nyid
Nampar Gyalwa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Achieving the Nondual Equanimity of the Aryas.’’
The Emptying of Ontology 69

Avatamsaka-sutra [see also: Maha-vaipulya-buddha-vatamsaka-sutra] (Tib: Dong-po Koe-pae Dho),

‘‘Flower Garland Sutra’’ [or] ‘‘The World of Buddha Beyond the Human World.’’
Cakrasamvara-tantra [also: Heruka Tantra] (Tib: Dechog Gyud [or] Khorlo Dhompa Gyud), ‘‘Tan-
tra of Supreme Wisdom.’’
Dakini-sagar (Tib: Khadro Gyatso), ‘‘Ocean of Dakini’’ [treatise on the features of the Dakini in the
Heruka mandala].
Dasa-bhumika-sutra [see also: Dasa-bhumi] (Tib: Sa Chu), ‘‘Ten Stages Sutra’’ [part of the Garland
Guhyasamaja-tantra [see also: Guhyasamaja-mula-tantra (and) Tathagata-guhyaka (and)
Tathagata-guna-jnana] (Tib: Sangwa Du-pae Tsa-gyud [or] Pel Sangwa Dupa Zhe Ja-wae Gyud
Kyi Gyalpo Chenpo), ‘‘The Great Guhyasamaja, Root King of Tantra’’ [Secret Guide to Com-
bining the Subtlest Form of Body with the Subtlest State of Consciousness].
Heruka-tantra (see Cakrasamvara-tantra).
Hevajra-Tantra (Tib: Gya-pa Dorjee Gyud), ‘‘The Tantra of Indestructible Bliss.’’
Kalacakra-uttara-tantra-raja (Tib: Duekhor Gyud-gyi Gyalpo), ‘‘The Royal Kalacakra Tantra.’’
Ksitigarbha-sutra [see also: Ksitigarbha-bodhisattva-sutra], ‘‘The Earth Encompassing Profound
Compassion Sutra’’ [sometimes referred to as the ‘‘Earth Treasure Sutra’’].
Lankavatara-sutra [see also: Mahayana-sutra-lanka-vatara] (Tib: Lankar Sheg Pae Dho), ‘‘The Lanka
Mahakala-tantra-raja (Tib: Gyud Gonpo Gyalpo Chenmo), ‘‘The Great Mahakala Tantra.’’
Panca-vimsatisa-hasrika-prajnaparamita-sutra (Tib: Nyitri Sutra).
Prajna-paramita-hrdaya-sutra [see also: Maha-prajna-paramita-hrdaya-sutra (and) Hrdaya-
prajnaparamita-sutra-vyakhya (and) Bhagavati-prajnalparamita-hrdaya-sutra] (Tib: She-rab
Kyi Pha Rol Tu Chin-pae Nying-po), ‘‘The Heart of Wisdom Sutra’’ [or] ‘‘Heart of Wisdom
beyond All Wisdom Sutra’’ [an explication of emptiness and the perfection of consciousness].
Prajna-paramita-sapta-satika-sutra (Tib: Bum [or] Sher Chen Bum-pae), ‘‘Transcendent Wisdom in
Seven Hundred Stanzas.’’
Saddharma-pundarika-sutra (Tib: Dham-choe Padma Kar-po), ‘‘The White Lotus of True Justice.’’
Samadhi-raja-sutra (Tib: Ting-nge Zin Gyalpo), ‘‘King of Meditative Concentration Sutra.’’
Sarva-durgati-parishodana-tantra [see also: Sarva-durgati-parishodana-tejo-raja-sya-tathagata-sya-
arhat-samyaksam-shuddha-sya-kalpa-nama] (Tib: Ngen Song Jong Gyud [or] De Zhin Shegpa
Dra Chompa Yang Dakpa Zok Pae Sang-gye Ngen Song Tham Ched Yongsu Jong-wa Zhi Jed-
kyi Gyalpo Takpa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Full Enlightenment Tantra with Power to Eliminate Inferior
Siddhi-bhiksa-rana-nama-tantra [see also: Bhikarana] (Tib: Gonpa Lungton-pa Zhe Ja-wae Gyud),
‘‘Tantra in Which Meditative Sites Are Discussed.’’
Sri-maha-samba-rodhya-tantra-raja-nama (Tib: Gyud Dom Jung [or] Pel Dechog Dompa Jungwa
Zhe Ja-wae Gyud-kyi Gyalpo Chenpo), ‘‘Supreme Practice of the Heruka Tantric Vows.’’
Sri-parama-dinama-mahayana-kalpa-raja (Tib: Pel Chog Dag-po Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Treatise on Supreme
Tripitaka-svabhava (Tib: Dhe Nod Sum-gyi Tsul), ‘‘Three Modes of Sutra’’ [also referred to as the
‘‘Three Baskets Sutra’’].
Vajrabhairava-tantra (Tib: Jigje Tsa-gyud), ‘‘Tantra That Overcomes Hatred and Death.’’
70 E Richard Sorenson

Vajra-cchedika-sutra [see also: Vajra-cchedika-prajna-paramita-sutra] (Tib: Dorjee Choe-pa Doh),

‘‘Diamond Cutter Sutra.’’
Vajra-dakini (Tib: Dorjee Khadroma [or] Dorjee Khadro Dechog), ‘‘The Dakini Tantra of Heruka’’
[the Tantra of the feminine principle of Heruka].
Vajra-jnana-samucchaya-nama-tantra (Tib: Yeshe Dorjee Kun-tu [or] Yeshe Dorjee Kun Lae Tud-pa
Zhe-jawae Gyud), ‘‘Vajrayana Tantra.’’
Vajramala [see also: Shri-vajramala-abhidharma-mahayoga-tantra-saba-tantra-hrdaya-raja-sarva-
vibagha-nama] (Tib: Dorjee Trengwa [or] Neljor Chenpo Gyud Pel Dorjee Trengwa Nyon Par
Jod-pae Gyud Tham Chad-kyi Nying-po Selwa Nampar Chewa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Clearly Perceiving
the Heart of Root Tantra through Vajra Repetition.’’
Vajrayogini-tantra [see also: Shri-dakini-maha-yogini-tantra-raja-nama] (Tib: Naljor Ma Yi Gyud
[or] Pel Khandro Gyatso Naljor Mae Gyud-kyi Gyalpo Chenpo Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Ocean of Great
Dakini Tantra.’’
Buddhaghosa, fifth century A.D.
Visuddhi-magga (Tib: De-lam), ‘‘The Route to Bliss.’’
Buddhapalita (Tib: Sang-gye Kyang), fifth to sixth century A.D.
Buddhapalita-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti (Tib: Sang-gye Kyang Drel-wa), ‘‘Buddhapalita’s Commen-
tary on [Nagarjuna’s] Prajna-nama-mula-madhyamaka-karika’’ [a particularly clear com-
mentary on Nagarjuna’s ultimate viewpoint].
Bu-ston, 1290–1364
Chos Byung, ‘‘History of Buddhism.’’
Candrakirti (Tib: Dawa Dakpa), c. 580–650 A.D.
Catuh-sataka-vrtti [see also: Bodhisattva-yogacara-catuh-sataka-tika (and) Yogacara-catuh-sataka-
karika] (Tib: Zhi-gya-pa Zhe Ja-wae Drel-wa), ‘‘Commentary on [Aryadeva’s] Catuh-sataka
[Four Hundred Treatise].’’
Madhyamaka-vatara-bhasya [see also: Madhyamaka-vatara-bhasya-nama] (Tib: Uma La Jupae
Shed-pa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘[Candrakirti’s] Commentary on [his own] Madhyamaka-vatara-nama.’’
Mula-madhyamaka-vatara-vrtti-prasanna-pada [see also: Madhyamaka-vatara-nama] (Tib: Uma
Jug-pa [or] Uma La Jugpa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Clear Words on [Nagarjuna’s] Mula-madhyamaka-
karika’’ [a supplement to Nagarjuna’s ideas on emptiness, the ten levels of achievement, and
the five paths].
Panca-skandha-prakarana (Tib: Phung Po Nga-yi Rabtu Chewa), ‘‘Clear Taxonomy of the Five
Pradipa-dyotana [see also: Pradipa-dyotana-nama-tika] (Tib: Dronsel [or] Gyud Thamched Kyi
Gyalpo Pel Sangwa Dupae Tza-we Gyud Kyi Dronma Rabtu Selwar Je-pa Zhe Gyacher Shed-pa),
‘‘Brilliant Lamp Commentary Clarifying the Difficult Meanings in the Guhyasamaja Tantra.’’
Prasannapada-madhyamaka-vrtti [see also: Prasannapada-vrtti (and) Mula-madhyamka-vatara-
vrtti-prasanna-pada (and) Prasana-mula-madhyamaka-vrtti] (Tib: Tsig-sel [or] Uma Tsawae
Drel-wa Tsig Selwa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Clearly Worded Explanation of [Nagarjuna’s] Mula-
Sunyata-saptati-vrtti (Tib: Tong Nyid Dun-chu-pae Drel-wa), ‘‘Commentary on [Nagarjuna’s]
Seventy Verses Explaining Emptiness.’’
The Emptying of Ontology 71

Vajrasattva-sadhana-nama (Tib: Dorjee Sempae Drub Thab Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Accomplishing the Nond-
ual Realization of Emptiness and Perfected Consciousness of Vajrasattva.’’
Yukti-sastika-vrtti (Tib: Rigpa Druk-chu-pae Drel-wa), ‘‘Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Sixty-Verse
Treatise on Reasoning.’’
Chakpa Rolpai Dorjee, seventeenth century
Drupta [a concise historical classification of Tantras based on Tsongkhapa’s work].
Devasarman, fifth century B.C.
Vijnana-kaya (Tib: Gyal-wae Ku), ‘‘Compendium on Consciousness.’’
Dhakpo Namkha Dak, sixteenth century
Dhak-poe Kye-rim [or] Gyud Thamche Kyi Gyalpo Pel Sangwa Dupae Kye-rim Gyi Namshae Dor-
jee Chang Wang La-mae Sung Gyun, ‘‘Detailed Explanation of the Sangwa Dupa Generation
Dharmakirti (Tib: Choe-drak), c. 580–660 A.D.
Hetubindu [also: Hetubindu-nama-prakarana] (Tib: Ten-tsig Thig-pa [or] Ten-tsig Thig-pa Zhe-ja-
wae Rabtu Chewa), ‘‘Vehicle of Logic.’’
Nyaya-bindu [see also: Nyaya-bindu-nama-prakarana] (Tib: Rig-thig [or] Rigpae Thig-pa Zhe Ja-wae
Rabtu Chewa), ‘‘A Drop of Great Reasoning’’ [an explanation of Nyaya logic].
Pramana-varttika [see also: Pramana-varttkika-karika (and) Acarya-dharmakirti-pramana-varttika]
(Tib: Tsema Namdrel [or] Tsema Namdrel Gyi Tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Commentary on [Dignaga’s]
Pramana-samuccaya’’ [a discussion of valid cognition].
Pramana-viniscaya (Tib: Tsema Nam-nye [or] Tsema Nampar Nyepa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Precisely Under-
standing Unobstructed Valid Consciousness.’’
Sambandha-pariksa [see also: Sambandha-pariksa-vrtti] (Tib: Drel-wa Tak-pa [or] Drel-wa Tak-pae
Rabtu Je-pa), ‘‘Analysis of the Relationship of Various Logical Positions.’’
Samtanantara-siddhi [see also: Samtanantara-siddhi-nama-prakarana] (Tib: Gyud-zhen Drub-pa),
‘‘Logically Demonstrating Different Individual Consciousness Streams.’’
Vada-nyaya [see also: Vada-nyayana-nama-prakarana] (Tib: Tsod-pae Rigpa), ‘‘Logic within

Dignaga (Tib: Chok-lang), c. 480–540 A.D.

Alambana-pariksha (Tib: Mikpa Takpa), ‘‘Critical Examination of Objects.’’
Hetuchakra (Tib: Rigpae Khorlo), ‘‘Wheel of Reason.’’
Nyaya-mukha (Tib: Rigpae Kha), ‘‘The Mouth of Logic.’’
Pramana-samuccaya (Tib: Tsema Kuntud [or] Tsema Kun-le Tupa Zhe Ja-wae Raptu Je-pa), ‘‘Precise
Clarification of Refined Cognition.’’
Drogmi Lotsawa, c. 990–1070
Gya-pa Dorjee Gyud, [Drogmi’s Tibetanized version of the Hevajra Tantra].
Gampopa (Dakpo Lharja), 1079–1153
Dakpoi Thar-gyen, ‘‘Dakpo’s Attributes of Liberation.’’
Goe Lotzawa, 1059–1109
Tong-thun, ‘‘A Session on Emptiness’’ [essential meanings for all the Sangwa Dupa Tantric texts].
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Gyaltsab Je, 1364–1432

Gyaltsab-je Sung-bum Poe Druk, ‘‘The Six Texts of Gyaltsab Je.’’
Nying-poe Don Sel-war Jed-pa, ‘‘Clear Presentation of the Meaning of Ultimate Essence.’’
Haribhadra, c. ninth century
Aloka [a detailed commentary on Maitreya’s Abhisamayalamkara, especially with regard to the
nine progressive meditative states leading to awareness realization].
Harivarman, third to fourth century A.D.
Satyasiddhi-sastra (Tib: Denpa Drup-pae Ten-chod), ‘‘Thesis on True Attainment.’’
Indrabhuti, c. 687–717
Jnana-siddhi, ‘‘Attainment of Knowledge.’’
Jam-yang Zhed-pa
Drub-tha Chenmo, ‘‘Great Tenets.’’

Jnanagarbha, eighth century

Arya-maitreya-kevala-parivarta-bhyasa, ‘‘Commentary on [Maitreya’s] Samdhi-nirmocana-sutra.’’
Satya-dvaya-vibhanga [see also: Satya-dvaya-vibhaga-sastra], ‘‘The Distinction between the Two
Kinds of Truth.’’
Kadampa Lama(s)
Kadam Che-tud, ‘‘Compendium of Kadampa Instruction.’’
Kamalasila, eighth century A.D.
Bhavana-krama (Tib: Gom-rim [or] Lopon Kamalasila Zepae Gomrim Thog-tha Bar Sum Shugso),
‘‘The Three Stages of Meditation.’’
Madhyamaka-lamkara-panjika (Tib: Uma-gyen-gyi Tha-Chod), ‘‘Additional Clarification of the
Middle Way.’’
Madhyamaka-vatara [see also: Madhyamaka-loka-nama] (Tib: Uma-Nang-wa), ‘‘Illumination of
the Middle Way.’’
Tattva-samgraha-panjika (Tib: Dhe Khona Nyi Dud-pae Ka Drel), ‘‘Elucidation of [Santaraksita’s]
Essential Principles on Emptiness.’’

Katyayaniputra, c. third century B.C.

Jnana-prasthana (Tib: Choe Nyon-pa Yeshe Pharol-tu Chin Pae Tenchoe), ‘‘The Structure of
Khache Lamae (Kache Rinchen Dorjee)
Lamae Drel-wa [Khache Lamae’s commentary on Nagarjuna’s Pentabida-sadhana, dividing the
Sangwa Dupa Completion Stage into five levels].
Khedrup Je (Khedrup Gelek Pel Sangpo) fourteenth to fifteenth century
Kagyama, ‘‘Commentary on the Generation Stage of Jigje.’’
Kye-rim Chenmo Ngod Drub Gyatso [or] Gyud Thamched-kyi Gyalpo Pel Sangwa Dupae Kye-rim
Ngo Drub Gyatso, ‘‘The Ocean of Attainments of the Generation Stage of the Sangwa Dupa
Tantra’’ [essential preparation for entering the Sangwa Dupa Completion Stage].
Khedrup-je Sungbum Poe Chu-nui, ‘‘Khedrup’s Twelve Texts.’’
The Emptying of Ontology 73

Losang Choegyen (Losang Choekyi Gyaltsen), seventeenth century

Rim-nga Nying-po, ‘‘Essence of the Five Tantric Levels of the Completion Stage.’’

Losang Gyaltsen Seng-gye

Pel Dorjee Jigje Pa-wo Chik Pae Zogrim-gyi Nam-shed Jam Pel Gye Pae Chod Trin, ‘‘The Bliss of
the Completion Stage of the Lone Hero Tantra’’ [a commentary on the Completion Stage
of the Pa-chik solitary form of Jigje].
Luhipa (Dechog Luipa)
Lui-pae Drub Thab, ‘‘The Luipa Method of Dechog Tantric Practice.’’
Mahasanghika school (collective work)
Mahavastu, ‘‘Great Subjects.’’
Dvika-tattva-bhava-nama-mukha-gam (Tib: Jampel Zhelung), ‘‘The Teachings of Bodhisattva
Manjushri’’ [with explanation of the Four Drops of concentrated attention in the Guhyasa-
maja Completion Stage].
Marpa Lotsawa, 1012–1099
Rig-nga Don-nya-pa (Skt: Sri-cakrasamvara-panca-krama-vrtti), ‘‘Dissertation on the Five Lineages.’’
Rig-nga Khorlo Chen, ‘‘The Great Wheel of Five Lineages.’’
Wosel Tzen Thap Kyi Me Ngak, ‘‘Instruction on Inducing the Appearance of Clear-Light.’’
Maudgalyayana, c. third century B.C.
Prajnapti-sastra, ‘‘On the Origin of Designations’’ [a Sarvastivada Abhidharma].
Moggaliputta Tissa, c. 250 B.C.
Kathavatthu, ‘‘The Points of Controversy.’’
Nagabodhi (Tib: Lhu-yi Jangchub)
Karma-entavi-banga-nama (Tib: Lai-tha Namge [or] Lay Kyi Tha Nampar Jed-pa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘The
Limit of Karmic Action’’ [including an explanation of the Four Great Empties].
Shri-guhyasamaja-mandala-upayi-kabem-shatabidi-nama (Tib: Chechok Nyi-shupa [or] Pel
Sangwa Dupae Kilkhor-gyi Chogha Nyishu-pa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Twenty Ritual Variations for the
Guhyasamaja Mandala.’’
Nagarjuna, second century A.D.
Arya-mula-sarvastavadi-sramanera-karika [see also: Mula-sarvastavadi-sramanera-karika] (Tib:
Lopon Ludrup-kyi Zoy), ‘‘Behavioral Modes for Novice Monks).’’
Arya-sheli-tambaka-mahayana-sutra-tika (Tib: Salu Jang-pae Dodrel [or] Phagpa Salu Jang-pa
Zhe Ja-wa Thegpa Chenpoe Doh Gyacher Shed-pa), ‘‘Commentary on the Fertile Seed Sutra’’
[an analytic explanation of cause and effect].
Bodhicitta-vivarana (Tib: Jangchub sem Drel), ‘‘Commentary on the Spirit of Bodhicitta.’’
Dasabhumi-vibhasa-sastra (Tib: Sa Chu-pae Do-drel), ‘‘Explanation of Sakyamuni’s Ten Stages’
Dharma-sangraha [see also: Acarya-nagarjuna-pranita-dharma sangraha] (Tib: Phag Chog-lu Drub-
kyi Zae-pae Cho-yon Dag-par Dupa), ‘‘Compendium of Dharmas.’’
74 E Richard Sorenson

Dvadasa-nikaya-sastra [see also: Dvada-samukha-sastra] (Tib: Zamo Tong-pa Nyi Kyi Goh Chung-
ni), ‘‘Treatise on the Twelve Gates to Voidness.’’
Maha-deha-tantra (Tib: Gyud Den-zhi), ‘‘Generating the Body of Subtlest Emotive Force [gyumae-
Maha-prajna-paramita-sastra [see also: Maha-prajnaparamita-upadesa-sastra] (Tib: Sherab-kyi
Pharol-tu Chenpa Zhe Ja-wa), ‘‘Treatise on the Great Perfection of Wisdom’’ [a commentary
on the Maha-prajnaparamita-sutra].
Mahayana-vimsika (Tib: Khorlo Chenpo), ‘‘Verses on the Great Vehicle.’’
Mula-madhyamaka-karika [see also: Madhyamaka-karika (and) Prajna-nama-mula-madhyamaka-
karika] (Tib: Tza-shed [or] Tzawae Sherab [or] Uma Tza Wae Tsig Liu Je-pa Sherab Zhe Ja-wa),
‘‘The Root of the Middle Way to Wisdom’’ [a widely respected poetic presentation of the logic
of emptiness].
Niti-sastra-jantu-posana-bindu (Tib: Kye Boi-so Thig), ‘‘Drop of Nourishment for People.’’
Pentabida-sadhana (Tib: Dor-jae [or] Pel Sangwa Dupae Drubthab Dor-jae), ‘‘Simplified Practice of
the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra.’’
Prajna-danda (Tib: Sherab Dhong-po), ‘‘Tree of Wisdom’’ [shows wisdom as the basis of all
Prajnaparamita-stotra (Tib: Sherab-kyi Pharol-tu Chin-pae Toepa), ‘‘Perfection of Wisdom Praises.’’
Prajna-sataka (Tib: Sherab-kyi Pharol-tu Chin-pae Tsik Gya-pa), ‘‘Hundred Verses on the Perfec-
tion of Wisdom.’’
Pratitya-samutpada-hrdaya-karika (Tib: Phag Chog-lu Drub-kyi Zae-pae Tendrel Nying-po Tsa-
drel), ‘‘Explanatory Verses on Dependent Causation.’’
Rati-sastra [verses on the nature of the erotic].
Ratna-vali [see also: Raja-parikatha-ratna-vali [or] Yoga-ratna-mala] (Tib: Rinchen Trengwa [or]
Gyalpo La Tam Ja-wa Rinpoche Yi Trengwa), ‘‘Precious Garland of Royal Advice.’’
Rimpa-nga, ‘‘Lamp Illuminating the Five Levels [of the Sangwa Dupa] Completion Stage.’’
Soma-raja-bhaisajya-sadhana (Tib: Man Choe Dawae Gyalpo), ‘‘Great Moonlight on Medical
Sunyata-saptati [see also: Sunyata-saptati-karika] (Tib: Tong Nyid Dunchu-pa), ‘‘Seventy-Stanza
Treatise on Emptiness’’ [explains the unreality of the elements of reality].
Sri-guhyasamaja-mahayoga-tantra-upadatrama-dana-satama-sharwa-kanama (Tib: Do-sae [or] Nal-
jor Chen-po Gyud Pel Sangwa Dupae Kye Wae Rimpa Gom-pae Thap Dho Dang Se-pa Zhe
Ja-wa), ‘‘Stages of Generating Guhyasamaja and Combining its Methods with the Practice of
Tatite-samota-panda-hrdaya-bekanna (Tib: Ten Ching Drel-war Jung-wae Nying-poe Nampar
Shed-pa), ‘‘The Twelve Elements of Dependent Arising’’ [a commentary on Sakyamuni Bud-
dha’s ‘‘Tendrel Nying-po Doe’’].
Trikvam (Tib: Rimpa Sum-pa), ‘‘Explanation of the Third Level of the Completion Stage.’’
Upadesa-sam (Tib: Man Nying [or] Man Ngag Nying-poe Gyen), ‘‘Decorations on the Essential
Vaidalya-prakarana [also: Vaidalya-sutra-nama] (Tib: Zhimo Nam-thag [or] Zhimo Nampar Thagpa
Zhe Ja-wae Rabtu Jepa), ‘‘The Finely Woven Foundations of Sutra’’ [an analysis of variant views
on emptiness, a refutation of Nyaya logic, and a logical proof of the validity of emptiness].
The Emptying of Ontology 75

Vigra-havya-vartani [also: Vigra-havya-vartani-karika] (Tib: Tsod-dhog), ‘‘Deflecting Objections’’

[refutations of objections to the Madhyamika theory of emptiness].
Vyavahara-siddhi (Tib: Toe-drub), ‘‘The Co-existence of Absoluteness and Relativity.’’
Yukti-sastika-karika (Tib: Rigpa Druk Chupae Tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Sixty Verses Logically Demonstrat-
ing Wisdom.’’
Naropa, 1016–1100
Naro Choe-drug, ‘‘The Six Techniques of Naropa’’ [instructions on vows and empowerment,
generating inner heat and bliss, attaining subtle body, and experiencing clear-light with an
explanation of the intermediate stage (bardo), as well as dream yoga and instructions on con-
sciousness transference].
Naro-pae Zed Pae Gyud Chimae Drel-wa, ‘‘Commentary on the Eighteenth Chapter [of the Marpa/
Lotsawa translation] of the Sangwa Dupa Root Text.’’
Rim-nga Dud-pa, ‘‘Condensed Explanation of the Five Levels of the Completion Stages [of Sangwa
Nawang Palden
Sang Chen Gyud De Zhi Yi Sa Lam-gyi Nam Zhag Zhung Sel Jae, ‘‘Presentation of the Grounds and
Paths of the Four Great Secret Tantric Sets.’’
Patsab Lotzawa
Tza-gyud Patsab-kyi Gyur-wae Liu Drug-pa, ‘‘Patsab’s Guide to the Sixth Level of the Sangwa Dupa
Root Text.’’
Rinchen Sangpo, 958–1065
Shed-gyud, ‘‘Explanation of the Sangwa Dupa Root Text’’ [Rinchen Sangpo’s Tibetan explanation
of Buddha Sakyamuni’s Guhyasamaja].
Santideva, seventh to eighth century A.D.
Bodhicarya-vatara [see also: Bodisattva-carya-vatara] (Tib: Choe-jug [or] Jangchub Sempae Chod-
pa La Jug-pa), ‘‘Bodhisattva Deeds in Practice.’’
Madhyamaka-hrdaya-vrtti (Tib: Uma Drel-wa [or] Uma Nying-poe Drelwa), ‘‘Commentary on the
Essence of the Middle Way.’’
Prajna-pradipa-tika, ‘‘Commentary on [Bhavaviveka’s] Lamp for Wisdom.’’
Shiksa-samuccaya-karika (Tib: Lab-pa Kun-tud [or] Lab-pa Kun Lae-tue Pae-tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Com-
plete Teachings for the Bodhisattva Way of Life.’’
Tathagata-hrdaya-papadeshana-vidhisahita-sataka-raraksa (Tib: Ten-due), ‘‘The Essential Founda-
tions of Reality.’’
Santiraksita, eighth century A.D.
Madhyamika-lamkara-karika [see also: Madhyamaka-lamkara] (Tib: Uma Gyen [or] Uma Gyen Gyi
Tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Verses on the Middle Way’’ [a poetic presentation of emptiness according to
the Sautrantika Madhyamika school].
Madhyamika-lamkara-vrtti (Tib: Umae Gyen Gyi Drel-wa), ‘‘[Santiraksita’s] Commentary on [his
own] Madhyamika-lamkara-karika.’’
Tattva-samgraha [see also: Tattva-sangraha-karika] (Tib: Ten Due), ‘‘The Truth within the Accumu-
lated Teachings of Buddha.’’
76 E Richard Sorenson

Seng Dengpa (Singdingpa Zhonu), c. ninth to tenth century

Gyuma Sum Gyud-kyi Man Nyak, ‘‘Three Tantric Illusion Techniques.’’
Khorlo-chen, ‘‘Wheel Holder.’’
Rim-nga Denzog, ‘‘The Five Levels of the Completion Stage’’ [practical explanations of the medi-
tation practices].
Rim-nga Dhon Zhi-pa, ‘‘The Meaning of the Fourth Level of the Completion Stage.’’
Rim-nga Don Nga-pa, ‘‘The Meaning of the Fifth Level of the Completion Stage.’’
Rim-nga Sempa Sum Tzeg, ‘‘Three Meditations’’ [Yeshe Sempa, Damtsig Sempa, and Ting-ngezin
Sarvastivada School (collective work), third century B.C.
Lalita-vistara, ‘‘The Play of Buddha.’’
Min-nyi [or] Min Gyak Nyi-ma, ‘‘Sunlight on Instructions’’ [Explanation of the winds-of-life activ-
ity in the body.]
Sthaviravada School (collective works), third to fourth century B.C.
Dhamma-sangani, ‘‘The Orderly Relationship of Objects.’’
Vibhanga, ‘‘A Taxonomy of the Elements of Reality [dharmas].’’

Sthiramati, sixth century A.D.

Abhidharma-samuccaya-vyakhya (Tib: Choe Ngonpa Zoe Kun lay Tue pa), ‘‘Commentary on
[Asanga’s] Abhidharma-samuccaya.’’
Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra-tika [see also: Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra-bhasya-tika] (Tib: U-mae Drel-
wa), ‘‘Commentary on [Vasubandhu’s] Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra-bhyasa’’ [a discourse on
centers and extremes].
Trimsika-bhasya [see also: Trimsika-vritti] (Tib: Lab-pa Sum Gyi Drel-wa), ‘‘Commentary on
[Vasubhandu’s] Trimsika.’’
Tilopa (Tillopada), 988–1069
Phag-gya Chenpoi Men-ngag [or] Phag-gya Chenpo Dorjee Tsig Kyang Nyi Gyapa, ‘‘[Tilopa’s]
Twenty-Eight Verse Song of Mahamudra Instruction [to Naropa].’’
Tsongkhapa (Lozang Dragpa), 1357–1419
Badon Kunsel [or] Khorlo Dhompa Dechog Dhu-gyud Kyi Sacher Sheg-pa Badon Kunsel, ‘‘Com-
mentary on the Root Text of [Buddha Sakyamuni’s] Dechog Tantra [Skt: Heruka].’’
Chedhor Gyud-kyi Sindri Dhag Dinyi-kyi Sindri, ‘‘Explanation of Buddha Sakyamuni’s Teachings
on Hevajra.’’
Dechog Rim-nyi Shed-pa Bagdon Tsa-wae Mik Namper Jed-pa, ‘‘Clarifying the Buried Meanings
within the Root Tantra of Dechog [Skt: Heruka].’’
Dorjee Dhe-pae Sindri, ‘‘Results of Vajra Mantra Repetition’’ [in relation to isolation of speech
Dorjee Jigje-kyi Drupthap Dhulai Namgyal, ‘‘Instructions on Achieving Self-Generation of the
Solitary Jigje [Skt: Yamantaka].’’
Dragwa-dag Nyipae Don Nampar Chewi Tenchod Leg-shed Nying-po, ‘‘Extensive Explanation of
Differences in the Turning of the Three Great Wheels of Dharma by Buddha Sakymuni.’’
The Emptying of Ontology 77

Dronsel Gyi Kan-kyi Yangdril [or] Gyud Tham-ched Kyi Gyalpo Pel Sangwa Dupae Tza-Gyud
Gyacher Shed-pa Dronma Selwae Kan-kyi Tachod, ‘‘Illumination of the Difficult Points of
the Sangwa Dupa Tantra Completion Stage’’ [commentary on Candrakirti’s Dronsel (Skt:
Dukhor Zogrim Jorwa Yenlak Druk-ge Khri Puni Ming-chen gye Je-yi Sungzheg Sindri Su Kodpa,
‘‘Extensive Analysis of the Six Levels of the Completion Stage of the Kalachakra Tantra.’’
Lamrim Chenmo [or] Jangchub Lam-gyi Rimpa Chenmo [or] Kham-sum Choe-kyi Gyalpo
Tsongkhapa Chenpoe Zed-pae Jangchub Lam-gyi Rimpa Chenmo, ‘‘The Great Graded Path
of Tsongkhapa’’ [Tsongkhapa’s systematic presentation of his distinguished Sutra Path to
Leg-shed Nying-po [or] Drawa-dag Nyi-pae Don Nampar Chewi Tenchod Leg-shed Nying-po), ‘‘Es-
sence of Eloquence’’ [similarities, clear meanings, and examples of the essence of Buddha
Sakyamuni’s ultimate and conventional meanings as propounded in his Three Great Wheels
of Dharma].
Leg-shed Ser Thig-pa Shepa Man, ‘‘The Essence of a Drop of Gold as Medicine’’ [commentary on
the Fourth to Eighth Chapter of [Maitreya’s] Abhisamaya-lamkara].’’
Leg-shed Ser-gyi Trengwa [or] Sherab-kyi Pharol-du Chen-pae Mangak-gye Tenchoe Nyong-tok
Gyan Drelwa-dhag Ched-pa Gyacher Shed-pae Leg-shed Ser-gyi Trengwa Kap Dag-po Nyi
Sum-pae Bar, ‘‘Commentary on the First Three Chapters of [Maitreya’s] Abisamaya-lamkara.’’
Ngag-rim Chenmo [or] Gyalwa Khyab-dak Dorjee Chang Chen-poe Lam-gyi Rimpa Sangwa Kun-
gyi Nying-po Nampar Chewa, ‘‘The Secret Presentation of the Stages of the Dorjee Chang
Path’’ [a comprehensive explanation of all types of Ultimate Tantra].
Rim-nga Seldron [or] Gyud-kyi Gyalpo Pel Sangwa Dupae Me Ngag Rimpa Nga Rabtu Sel-wae
Dromae, ‘‘Thoroughly Illuminating Nagarjuna’s Instructions on the Five Levels of Ultimate
Sa-ched Dhudon [or] Dronsel Gyacher Shed-pae Sached Dhudon [or] Gyud Tham-ched Kyi Gyalpo
Pel Sangwa Dupae Tza-gyud Dronma Rabtu Selwar Je-pa Gyacher Shed-pae Sached Dhudon),
‘‘Lamp Thoroughly Illuminating the Five Stages of Guhyasamaja, the King of Tantras.’’
Sung-bum Choe-gye [the entire eighteen volumes of Tsongkhapa’s collected works].
Thachod Nyugu [or] Thachod Rimpoche Nyugu [or] Gyud-kyi Gyalpo Pal Sangwa-dupa Gyacher
Shed-pa Dronma Selwae Kawa Nyid Kyi Thachod Rimpoche Nyugu, ‘‘The Precious Sprout
Establishing the Final Meanings of the Sangwa Dupa Tza-gyud.’’
Uma Juk-pae Namshed Gong-pa Rabsel, ‘‘Commentary on Candrakirti’s Madhyamika-vatara.’’
Uma Tza-wae Khrid Yek. ‘‘Explanation of the Consciousness That Cognizes Emptiness and Under-
stands the Root of Emptiness.’’
Uma Tza-wae Tsik Lui Je-pae Namshed Rig-pae Gyaltso, ‘‘Extensive Commentary on Nagarjuna’s
Uma Tza-wae Sherab [Mula-madhyamika-karika].’’
Yeshe Dorjee Kuntud Kyi Tika [or] Pel Sangwa Dupae Shed-gyud Yeshe Dorjee Kunlae Tupae Tika,
‘‘Commentary on Sakyamuni Buddha’s Vajra-jnanna-samucchaya-nama-tantra.’’
Zablam Naro Choedrug-gyi Khrid-rim Yeshe Sum-den [or] Zab-lam Naro Choe-drug Gyi Khrid-pae
Rim-pa, ‘‘Instruction on the Profundities of Naropa’s Six Levels of Practice.’’
Vaibhasika/Sarvastivada School (collective work), second century A.D.
Vibhasa [see also: Maha-vibhasa (and) Abhidharma-mahavibhasa-sastra], ‘‘Great Elucidation.’’
78 E Richard Sorenson

Vajradhara, c. fifth century B.C.

Amoggasiddhi (Tib: Don-yod Drupa), ‘‘Meaningful Actualization of the All Accomplished State.’’
Samandra-bhadra (Tib: Kuntu Sangpo), ‘‘Unperishing Excellence.’’
Vairochana-samboddhi (Tib: Nam-nang Ngon Jang), ‘‘Clear Visualization of True Essence.’’
Vajra-jnana-samucchaya-nama-tantra [see also: Samucchaya] (Tib: Dhontu [or] Yeshe Dorjee
Kuntu), ‘‘An Accumulation of Meanings for the Guhyasamaja Root Text.’’
Vajra-mantra-lamkara-nama-maha-tantra-raja (Tib: Pel Dorjee Nying-po Gyen Zhe Ja-wae Gyud-
kyi Gyalpo Chenpo), ‘‘Beautifying Ultimate Vajra Tantra.’’
Vajramala (Tib: Dorjee Trengwa), ‘‘Indestructible Progression’’ [an extensive commentary on the
Guhyasamaja Tantra].
Vajrasattva-tantra (Tib: Gyud Dorjee Nying-po Gyen [or] Gyud Dorjee Nying-po Sempa Gyen),
‘‘Beautification of Ultimate Essence Tantra.’’
Vasubandhu (Tib: Lhopon Yik-ngen), fourth to fifth century A.D.
Abhidharma-kosa [see also: Abhidharma-kosa-bhasya] (Tib: Zoed-tza [or] Choe Nyon-pa Zod-kyi
Tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Treasure of Knowledge.’’
Dasa-bhumi-kavya-khyana, ‘‘The Ten Stages of Realization.’’
Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga-bhyasa (Tib: Choe Dang Choe Nyi Nampar Je-pae Drel-pa), ‘‘Discrimi-
nating Phenomena and Their Qualities’’ [a commentary on Maitreya’s Dharma-dharmata-
Karma-siddhi-prakrana (Tib: Le Drub-pae Rab-je), ‘‘Treatise on the Genesis of Actions.’’
Mahayana-sutra-lamkara-vyakhya [see also: Mahayana-sutra-lamkara-bhyasa] (Tib: Theg-pa Chen-
poe Dho Dae Gyen gyi Drelwa), ‘‘Explanation of [Maitreya’s] Mahayana-sutra-lamkara.’’
Mahayana-sangraha-bhyasa, ‘‘Commentary on [Asanga’s] Mahyana-sutra-sangraha.’’
Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra-bhyasa (Tib: Due Tha Nam Je [or] Due Dang Tha Nampar Je-pae Drel-
pa), ‘‘Commentary on [Maitreya’s] Madhyanta-vibhaga-sutra.’’
Panca-skandha-prakarana (Tib: Phung Po Ngae Rab-je), ‘‘Treatise on the Five Aggregates.’’
Trisvabhava-nirdesa (Tib: Sum gyi Rang-zhin Shed-pa), ‘‘Treatise on the Three Natures of
Trimsika [see also: Trimsika-vijnapti-karika] (Tib: Sum Chu Pae Tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Thirty Verses
Explaining Consciousness.’’
Vijnapti-matrata-siddhi-sastra [see also: Vijnapti-matrata-siddhi-sastra] (Tib: Gyalwae Ngak Gyi
Ngod-drup), ‘‘The Establishment of Cognitions Only.’’
Vimsatika [see also: Vimsatika-karika-vrtti] (Tib: Nyishu-pae Tsig Liu Je-pa), ‘‘Twenty Verses of
Vyakhya-yukti (Tib: Nam-shed Rigpa), ‘‘The Fundamentals of Elucidation.’’
Prakaranapada, ‘‘The Basis of Explanation’’ [a Sarvastivadin explanation of the elements of reality
(dharmas) in relation to the basic constituents of being (skandhas)].
2 The Soul and Communication between Souls

Edith L. B. Turner


The material presented here questions the limitations of our present scientific assumptions in
studies in the anthropology of religion. Ethnographic skills and sociological sensitivity related to
the parameters of diverse cultures show that such limitations can be overcome by recognizing
human situations that include the existence of souls and spirits. Such experiences do not
demand theoretical statements or dogmas. Instead, these direct experiences are validated through
their shared nature within a community. Curiously, a similar validation also occurs in
ethnographic study of souls and spirits, leading to the effect of broadening what one takes
seriously. In these matters, the narrow version of science has little to give, while a broadened
science, in the sense of ‘‘natural history’’—finding out what the soul is and how it behaves—has
a great future.


What happens when a person raised in a modern, technologically oriented sector of

society sees a spirit? The reaction may be different from that of someone who lives in
a culture with a clear understanding and acceptance of ‘‘soul’’ as a factual entity—for
instance, someone who lives by the knowledge embedded in an ancient theology in
India, or who is familiar with the deep skills of spirit curing in Africa, Native America,
Aboriginal Australia, or Brazil. While most Americans are familiar with the idea of
spirits, there seems to be a kind of knee-jerk shock when they occasionally see a spirit,
a shock derived from their social representations. The reaction is, ‘‘This is the occult!
It’s dangerous!’’ or ‘‘I must be crazy.’’ Many learned anthropologists and psychologists
have a sneaking suspicion that unexplained phenomena pointing to a spirit realm
actually happen, and that spirit beings do exist. These manifestations are in the process
of widening the accepted scientific boundaries of what is real for us—of expanding our
culture’s ontological matrix, to put it more precisely. Such scholars are faced with
accepting the truth that a consistent body of empirical data falls outside the purview
of currently established scientific methodology.
80 Edith L. B. Turner

A standard objection commonly heard is the belief that such strange events as spirit
manifestations live only in the imagination of those who claim to experience them.
This kind of positivist thinking, analogously, is as if the male half of the world were
to say that the sensations that women feel while giving birth to a baby were all in their
imagination, arguing that they, the men, never felt them. Such feelings, and pain gen-
erally, affect the senses just as the presence of spirits affects the senses, although both
are experienced subjectively and the actual experience itself and what it means to the
human being cannot be measured scientifically.
Publications by McClelon (1994) in the sociology of religion, and Young and Goulet
(1994) in anthropology, attest to some of the groanings and scrapings as the ontologi-
cal matrix expands into a broader view. These works are among the serious literature
that has developed around the documentation of spirit events (additional examples,
among many others, include Desjarlais 1992; Friedson 1996; Jackson 1989; Mills
1998; Peters 1981; Sharp 1996; Stoller 1989; E. Turner 1996, 1998; E. Turner et al.
1992). Alongside such research go yet other types of study that attempt to provide sys-
tematic explanations of phenomena that our current scientific methods have not yet
been able to substantiate. The argument brought forward by nearly all skeptics is that
these events originate from an experiencer’s own brain—a sensitive organ that they
argue has created in itself a capacity, for instance, to conjure up before one’s eyes an
occult or religious apparition, an effect that seems to originate in neurophysiological
activity. There are other similar explanations.
Curiously, many Western theologians take this kind of view, with the result that
they have to ‘‘superspiritualize’’ their religion, to detach it from the possibility of any
real attested acts of power in the concrete world, ‘‘supermoralizing’’ it. For some this
even means claiming that God’s intention in giving us the miracle-filled gospels was
to show us metaphors of goodness and self-sacrifice, and that the events in the scrip-
tures probably never really happened. For example, O’Murchu (1997, 165), a priest
who writes about theology, calls the resurrection a ‘‘mythic tale.’’ He says that ‘‘the
concepts of beginning and end, along with the theological notions of resurrection . . . ,
are invoked as dominant myths to help us humans make sense of our infinite destiny
in an infinite universe’’ (p. 183), and that ‘‘resurrection and reincarnation are not facts,
but mental/spiritual constructs that articulate both our paradoxical fear of, and yearn-
ing for, infinity’’ (p. 202; see also the theologians Dourley 1984, Kennedy 1988, and
Wink 1992). These statements would give the lie to my own experience of seeing
the spirit from a dead person and to the shamanic and other spirit experiences of the
anthropologists cited above.

Experiences of Direct Spirit Action

Bridging cultures is the key operation of anthropologists. More and more researchers
are achieving this task by dint of expanding their methodological framework. In this
The Soul and Communication between Souls 81

chapter I refer to some of their accounts. Let us look, for instance, at the case of one
ethnographer who managed the bridging because he was ready to listen to what the
field people were telling him. This case shows the merging of an ethnographer’s per-
ceptions with those of the people, his developing those perceptions in himself, and
his partaking of and adding to the supports of the culture. The scene is the religious
world of the Dene Tha Indians of Northwestern Alberta, and the ethnographer was
Jean-Guy Goulet (1994, 1998) of St. Paul’s University, Ottawa.

The Dene Tha

The Dene Tha, Athapascans of the Northwest Coast, live in a community that—when
understood from within their own culture—commonly experiences a different con-
sciousness from those of rationalists, the kind that is termed in a general sense altered
state of consciousness (ASC). The consciousness is fed by ritual, and also, importantly, by
the recounting to each other of stories of their own extraordinary experiences. Their
world is inhabited by helping animals and is informed by dreams. Its inhabitants are
gifted with experiences of the dead and of reincarnation. This sounds like a fairy-tale
world, but such societies do indeed exist. When Goulet (1998, 178–180) lived among
these people he himself began to have experiences that changed his worldview. On a
culminating occasion he saw a dead person in a vision, an event that he recounts: A
young girl Goulet knew well had been accidentally shot and killed by a hunter. Subse-
quent to this event it happened that Goulet had to go to a conference in Ottawa.
There, a métis (mixed-blood) shaman was in the process of giving a conference talk
when suddenly Goulet saw the deceased girl, smiling and radiant with light, in midair
in the middle of the conference hall. Later, when Goulet returned to the field and vis-
ited the Dene Tha, he recounted this story to the dead girl’s mother, who was touched
and excited about his encounter.
Through conversations such as these I became aware of an emerging process of reciprocity. Dene
Tha adults were offering accounts of visions and interpretations of them in response to my own
sharing with them of the experience I had in Ottawa. They were no longer too reticent about their
experiences. Each conversation drew me into deeper and deeper participation in the family dy-
namics associated with the expectation that [the girl] Nancy was to reincarnate. (Goulet 1998, 18)

The tribe, too, was strengthened by the story. After that, Goulet felt himself to be part
of the mother’s life and that of her people. The understanding of spirits among the
Dene Tha is not won by sermons or books, nor by believing things one is told one
should believe, but is won by one’s own experience and that of others, the experience
of what is, what happens, the experience of factual events. Thus the mother’s own con-
sciousness of spirits was fed by Goulet’s account. This event was now part and parcel
of her life, her special spirit-aware life, and she could recognize Goulet in it too.
Goulet says: ‘‘Among Athapascans . . . religion is predominantly experiential . . . a per-
son with religious experience is described not as a believer, but as someone who
82 Edith L. B. Turner

‘knows.’ . . . Discussion occurs between those who are ‘in the know.’ . . . Information
most often takes the form of stories’’ (p. 114). This realization opened to Goulet a
new appreciation of other researchers’ accounts about similar experiences (p. 119).
Anthropologists, together with the people they study, may constitute the community
of experiencers. Such participatory research can actually work due to awareness of the
same phenomena by researcher and people, which may develop so that spirit powers
are used by researcher and people together. Anthropologist and field people become
a community supporting the communitas (fellow-feeling) that circulates and gives
strength to the culture, a culture that knows for sure the experiences are real. Here the
bridging did take place—it was only on the grounds of spirit awareness that it could
take place.
What one perceives from Goulet’s work is that the telling of a story by ‘‘one
who knows’’ to another who ‘‘knows’’ has the effect of conveying the experi-
ence whole cloth to the other, and the recipient now in a sense has the experience.
In Goulet’s story of the vision, readers feel they are there with him in the confer-
ence hall. This changes the reader too, who has lived for a time inside the fully-felt
This kind of ‘‘seeing eye to eye,’’ then, does seem to be the common feature that can
join people, the secret path that can lead into the heart of another culture. Then what?
Then one can enter and see a culture working along with its people in a spiritual state
of consciousness. Ears to hear the Dene Tha stories do exist. The stories strike a re-
sponse from the hearer somewhat in the fashion of an electrical power system—that
is, in the Dene Tha meaning of power. This operates in a system of intercommunion
in the religious sense. It is ironic that true intercommunion is by no means found in
all Christian churches.
Changing continents to Africa, I relate a moment of quite palpable intercommunion
that was the signal for a spirit event and a notable cure. Each of the examples I am giv-
ing here is meaningful within its respective community, though quite inexplicable
with reference to modern psychopathology. Here it presupposes a world inhabited by
spirits that move independently of biological bodies.

Ihamba in Zambia
In Africa, spirits are well recognized and described by African practitioners. Numerous
comments about spirits presented by practitioners can be found, for example, in Victor
Turner’s book (1968) on the Ihamba ritual among the Ndembu, especially in appendix
A, as well as in my own 1985 study. They refer to spirits’ effects on humans, making
them shake; they mention their invisibility, except to those who have drunk herb
potions; they refer also to African reincarnation; they mention the character of a spirit,
like air, smoke, or mist, as well as its ambiguous nature, both material object and spirit
with volition.
The Soul and Communication between Souls 83

In 1985, at one of the Ndembu rituals, I personally experienced the oneness

of the ritual community and saw with my waking eyes an afflicting spirit. Thence-
forth I realized that my ontological matrix had grown beyond phenomena that
are generally accountable within science proper. There were indeed spirits. I had
seen one. I have presented a detailed description of this event elsewhere (E. Turner
et al. 1992, 131–158), and I will present a summary of it here together with my
The ritual was a collective effort to draw out an afflicting spirit in the form of a tooth
from a sick woman, with drumming to aid not only healing but the discernment of
the spirit. The support of the community with singing and clapping was essential to
the success of the ritual.
The medicine men attached cupping horns to the back of the woman to draw
out the spirit, and continually addressed the entity, persuading it to come out.
When the woman began to shake and utter her long pent-up grudges about her misfor-
tunes, the spirit was reckoned to be on its way out. But it took a long time. Finally,
when most of the crowd had given up hope a major climax occurred.
The sky had grown dark and a wind came up. Just then the central figure swayed
deeply: all leaned forward, this was indeed going to be it. I realized along with them
that the barriers were breaking. Something that wanted to be born was now going to
be born. Then a certain palpable social integument broke and something calved along
with me. I felt the spiritual motion, a tangible feeling of breakthrough moving through
the whole group. Then it was that the patient fell—the spirit event occurring first with
the action following afterward. I was clapping and singing with the others like one pos-
sessed, while the drums bellowed and the tribal doctor pressed the patient’s back, guid-
ing and leading out the tooth. The patient’s face wore a grin of tranced passion and her
back was quivering rapidly. Suddenly she raised her arm, stretched it in liberation, and
I saw with my own eyes a large thing emerging out of the flesh of her back. This thing
was a big gray blob about six inches across, a dark gray opaque thing appearing as a
sphere. I was amazed—delighted. I still laugh with glee at the realization of having
seen it, the Ihamba spirit, and so big! We were all one in triumph. The gray thing was
actually out there, visible, and I could see the hands of the tribal doctor working and
scrabbling on the patient’s back—and then the thing was there no more. The tribal
doctor had whatever it was in his pouch, pressing it in with his other hand as well.
The receiving can was ready; he transferred whatever it was into the can and capped
a castor oil leaf and bark lid over it. It was done. The patient was now relieved of her
This was a ritual of many levels. The group of five doctors who gathered on that day
knew the deepest of the levels well. They knew it was hard to see the spirit, yet they
were operating the process of actually getting to see it. Its nature was polarized as a
symbol is, as Victor Turner (1974, 51) found:
84 Edith L. B. Turner

I mean a certain polarization of meaning in which the subsidiary subject [the spirit here] is really a
depth world of prophetic, half-glimpsed images, and the principal subject, the visible, fully
known, at the opposite pole to it, acquires new and surprising contours and valences from its
dark companion. On the other hand, because the poles are ‘‘active together’’ the unknown is
brought into the light by the known.

The healing community collectively had come to the point. Their music, their support,
the singing, the symbols, the people’s goodwill toward the patient, their giving of
their own support to the process, also the work of the spirits—who were the spirits
of their own relatives, of whose presence the people had become aware during the
repeated calls to the spirits—all these effects finally drove the moment up to its climax.
I felt this unison effect through the group, vividly. We had reached, not a chance high
spot, but a condition in which the community was one. It is notable that the Ihamba
ritual is still undertaken today, as letters from Zambia have been telling me.
It can be seen that music has high importance here. Drumming is no ordinary aspect
of human experience. Our bodies have boundaries—skins—that prevent us from merg-
ing all of our bodies with other bodies. But by so intimately sharing precise timing in
the transformative power of rhythm, we can merge, we find that we are not separate.
The multitudinous acts of discernment involved, the care in switching between
levels and facets and modes of behavior, the release effect of the complex music, the
presence of an aggrieved spirit that is the cause of the affliction, the excitement of
the climax—together transcend the function of healing for the body and also of the
community. They are most economically explained as the desire of the spirit to mani-
fest itself, which was what the tribal doctor had diagnosed and what he successfully
brought about.
As for my function as ethnographer, in this case it began in a humble act of relaxing
the detached-observer imperative, so that I was able to accept their invitation to join
them, was briefly able to see as the Africans did, and thus found it possible to bridge
the gap and enter the culture.

Sakti and Soul

Numerous ethnographers report experiences that expand their knowledge of the soul.
Suchitra Samanta (1998) wrote an ethnography of the processes of the spiritual levels
of life in Calcutta, also dealing with the human-plus-spirit actions involved. Here, as
with the Dene Tha, Samanta realized that the stories she collected from spiritual disci-
ples were immensely important to the experiencers, in fact, ‘‘central to their lives’’
(p. 31). Samanta tells of the people’s sense of the fluid power of the spirit called Sakti,
and their sense of the soul. Sakti, soul power, is invisible, a communicable power that
permeates both the material and nonmaterial worlds. It can pass from one person to
another. It enables transformation in an individual, and is shown in the intense love
of a guru for his disciple.
The Soul and Communication between Souls 85

Accounts by Bengali disciples about their gurus give their personal experiences of the
extranormal powers of their preceptors, as manifested, for example, in psychic healing,
or rebirth of the guru into the disciple’s family. These experiences, crucial to the guru-
disciple relationship, may be understood in terms of the indigenous concepts of divine
power (Sakti), ‘‘experiential knowing’’ or ‘‘miracle’’ (anubhuti), and a unique concept of
the ‘‘mind’’ (man). The experiences are meaningful because they are powerfully trans-
formative of the disciple’s ‘‘self’’ as culturally defined (p. 30). The worshipers tell of
waking visions in which the faces of gurus merge with that of the nineteenth-century
Kali saint Ramakrisna and/or of the goddess Sakti herself. Other experiences include
the sighting of moving bright lights with no perceptible source, leading to the discov-
ery of sacred objects; very detailed dream communications and instructions; the rein-
carnation of the guru into a follower’s family; or occasions when the guru psychically
heals dangerously ill disciples at a distance. The guru also heals by absorbing the karma
or future destiny of disciples, even transferring their destiny between persons in order
to effect a cure (p. 30).
What is actually seen, heard, smelled, or felt by an individual disciple in a real event
is, in its extraordinary aspects, also a true event, contextualized within the overarching
conception of Sakti as a fluid, mysterious, and moral power that permeates the physical
world of objects, actions, and effects. The disciples’ experiences of divine Sakti are also
true events because the events draw disciples toward the divine, at once enhancing and
transforming their moral perception. Inspired to reflect further, and to consolidate this
perception through prayer and spiritual discipline, the disciples learn not only what
the guru can do, but how he achieves it. Such perception may result in the disciple
himself or herself acquiring certain kinds of power, the ability to resolve marital con-
flict, to heal and protect, and to predict the outcome of projects. When the disciple
finally dies, he or she may continue to intervene in the lives of loved ones, as a dead
guru is able to do (p. 47).
The attributes of spirit here as ‘‘fluid,’’ as ‘‘communicable,’’ and as ‘‘permeating the
material and nonmaterial worlds’’ are compatible with accounts from other cultures,
examples of which are given in this chapter. Spirit, Sakti, has a powerfully enlivening
function. Spirits are connecting forces capable of rebirth. The accounts, told in good
faith, substantiate the similar experiences of people of different cultures. Denial of
these accounts undercuts conscious awareness of phenomena shared in participa-
tory practice that is different from measurable phenomena derived from reductionist

The Milkmaids
Once the mode of seeing spirits is, in principle, accepted as one possibility in human
experience, we can begin to appreciate the accounts of spiritual events in the his-
tories preserved in the different major religious traditions. What has been needed is a
86 Edith L. B. Turner

different level of comprehension. Let us look at an extremely well-known event in the

history of Hinduism. It is about one dark-blue spirit seen in exactly the same shape at
the same time in many places, one sighting for each of a company of milkmaids. It is
the story of Krishna and the milkmaids.
Krishna of the cows (Vanamali 1996), a mischievous beloved figure, playing his flute,
his ankles twinkling across each other in the dance, swaying sideways at the waist,
neck back, a sizzling, irresistible figure—this figure appeared dancing in the middle of
the circle of women, his skin dark blue ‘‘like a rain cloud,’’ mysterious and strange. The
women, gopis, who had been milking cows, heard his flute and found him there. When
each of them danced, overcome with love and laughter, he did a trick—flashed himself
into many Krishnas, one for each of them, dancing between each of them, dancing for
each single one of them, and at the same time fluting in the middle. How could this
be? What they learned was not to question and, above all, that no single one of them
should think Krishna had come for her alone. This was not the same kind of love as
in their marriages, settled down on a farm with dowry and in-laws. Radha, the most
famous of them, knew that. ‘‘She who binds to herself a joy /Doth the winged life
destroy /But she who catches the joy as it flies /lives in eternity’s sunrise,’’ to para-
phrase William Blake (1970, 461). This was such a moment of spirit experience for
Radha. Not the structures of society, not liturgies, not canon law, but the spirit as it
flies—which is a constant characteristic of many spirit encounters.1
Some of the milkmaids were tempted and wanted to possess the beautiful boy for
themselves—but then his image went ragged, and thinned to nothing. One of them
reached out brokenhearted, but he was gone. So she danced on sadly, begging him to
return. When Krishna returned she did not want to grab at him any more, but danced
in gratitude. ‘‘Communitas is the link between the gopis, the blue god between each
milkmaid,’’ explains Victor Turner (1969, 157) in an instructive passage on the anti-
structural nature of the encounter.
The story conveys the mystery of the collective, the ‘‘all of us in one,’’ or as Vana-
mali (1996, 77) aptly describes it in her commentary on the gopis, ‘‘submerged in a
state of unity in which all is One and there is no other.’’ That is what I felt, myself, in
Ihamba. Such an experience of oneness was there even in the story of Goulet, as well
as in the collective understanding of the Dene Tha tribe about their wondrous experi-
ences. The stories find their mark with those who have experienced similar events. The
full implications of the stories are then accepted because teller and listener exist in a
commonality of knowledge. Recognition originates from the memory of similar situa-
tions rather than from analysis; it is provided by direct participation and not by distant

The Fire Spirit

The next example—drawn from a Pentecostal tradition—is similar to the gopi tale.
The Soul and Communication between Souls 87

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there
came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they
were. Then there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of
them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the
Spirit enabled them to proclaim. (Acts 2, 1–5)2

It can be seen how each of the apostles in this biblical story was endowed with his own
spirit, but they were all the same spirit, just as in the story of the milkmaids. One notes
that in the great religions the appearance or presence of a spirit has received intense
attention, so that the occasions become central, sanctified, much illustrated, the basis
of sermons, with an aura of holiness. A continuum of spirit occasions exists, of course;
some of them are well known, and some very obscure. But in my experience they are
all mentioned with awe, even though touched with familiarity and sometimes laughter
because of the unexpectedly and outrageously affirmative revelations given to the
visionaries (see the touch of mischief about Krishna, the laughter of Don Genaro in
Castaneda as he teleports on the edge of a gorge, the humor of the women who
reported the walking Jesus doll of Tlaxcala, Mexico, the feeling of a spirit gamble at
Lourdes, the jokes at Knock shrine in Ireland, or the outburst of hilarity in the middle
of Ihamba).
The pair of collective spirit events—gopis and Pentecost, given above—also show the
workings of communitas. The events occurred among a group of comrades among
whom their very oneness was sanctified. Both stories were known by their coreligion-
ists as historic events, fortuitously occurring, neither of them deliberately induced by
ritual, merely happening among good folks who were enabled to realize what was
going on. The Ihamba event was not entirely a matter of the medicine man’s control—
its climax came unexpectedly. I had a direct sense that my own exhaustion was shared
by all the participants, as I have described in my account of the climax. There had been
a distinct moment of despair. This direct sense itself is my fieldwork material here.
In such a context, the experiencer knows, just as a woman knows of the tension and
release of normal childbirth. It is not without significance that, in the African ritual,
comparisons and links between Ihamba and childbirth are frequent (see E. Turner
et al. 1992, 90–92). Such knowledge in both cases cannot exist ahead of time, in a cal-
culated way, but comes spontaneously, unexpectedly.

Communitas in Social Rituals

Victor Turner identified the condition of communitas—that is, one’s generic sense of
fellow feeling, a basic union with others. This sense is inseparably linked to the aim of
ritual and to its major methods and tools. Without communitas, ritual fails. We have
noted the great importance of social unity, important in the support given in cases
of change of consciousness, and where the consciousness of the social group is
88 Edith L. B. Turner

changed as well as that of the individual, producing this social unity in its most in-
tense form.
Ritual support in the communitas mode can become a great effector for healing and
human betterment, but it is often taken for granted in the literature. We can find state-
ments such as ‘‘large crowds attended the pilgrimage devotions,’’ or ‘‘the community
drummed and sang until the shaman went into a trance,’’ and the like. In an otherwise
excellent article on Mexican Pentecostalism the anthropologist author says, ‘‘Those
present will ask for a ‘baptism by the Holy Ghost,’ which is made evident by the gift
of tongues. Due to the collective state of mind that has been created, it is not surprising
that many people do produce glossolalia at that moment’’ (Navarro 1998, 355). But
what was actually going on in the consciousness of these support groups? The author
does not give any detail, so we presume he did not participate in the speaking in
tongues. I propose we break the methodological, indeed semireligious, taboo against
sharing consciousness; for instance, one might even speak in tongues, scary though it
seems. Generally, it is surprising how easy it is to let go and allow the delight of expe-
riencing spirituality. This is a truly simple fieldwork technique practiced by many
anthropologists, and is exemplified in different ways in the cases below described by
Ellingson and Turnbull.

Unity for the Purpose of Cogenerating Gods from Gods—Tibet

What set me off on the topic of support was Ter Ellingson’s (1998) description of the
monks’ support of their leader in the contemporary annual Tibetan State Oracle ritual
at Lhasa, in which the oracle-speaking monk goes into a trance, is possessed by a god,
is then burdened with an immensely heavy crown, and bursts from the monastery
shooting with a bow and arrow. At the climax the crowd presses forward, eager to
receive a wound from the arrow. Ellingson describes the preliminary drumming, the
attendance of the other monks and assistants, the chanting and prayers. The article
includes an illustration that looks like a typical Buddhist holy picture.
To put the monk in a trance and to bring down the gods, the drums produce an un-
forgettable slow, mounting, hastening, and thunderous sound that rises to a climax.
The monk himself is saying a mantra in his heart, which is the god’s heart, so that
the two are joined by a ray of light that fuses them together like water flowing into
water, as the people describe it. Meanwhile the intense focus of the others on the
actual sensing of the gods’ presence, and the abandonment of the trancer to the pro-
cess that the worshipers are pressing on him, bring about the ecstasy, of which he
remembers nothing.
Outside the temple the large crowd hears the drumbeats and they too become shot
through with the power. Out bursts the Oracle in his sacred garb, the crown on his
head, a mirror on his chest, and a bow and arrow in his hands. The people swarm to-
The Soul and Communication between Souls 89

ward him, throwing white scarves over him, attempting to receive his arrow in their
bodies. He utters words, not remembering anything. The assistants even have to try to
limit the process to save everyone from being trampled.
Thus the entire group receives the god, not just the individual monk. Ter Elling-
son, the ethnographer, also felt the advent of the god—something, for example, that
Navarro, the ethnographer of those who spoke in tongues, never indicated he had
Ellingson’s account of the Tibetan ritual demonstrates the support given to the Ora-
cle by others, along with a reflexive feedback effect from the Oracle to others. This mu-
tual process is the paramount element in the complex event. Humans do seem able to
come together to effect the presence of a spirit or god, an entity who is usually invisible
and who has intentions with regard to humankind. These intentions also become
plain: that humanity should respect the ancestors, do good to the neighbors, heal,
and act honestly. All religionists sense that the initiative is with the gods, and this ma-
jor element of religion is one that scholars of philosophy, religion, anthropology, and
consciousness need to address. The Lhasa event is not a psychological one. The spirits
are real, deeply connected with humankind, and can change the state of a human
being’s actual body in healing events. In the event at Lhasa the god was strongly there,
having arrived in the body of the monk.
Thus the kind of sociality I am considering carries the effects and links people. We
may see it involved in the Tibetan ritual when the populace enters a state of truly
collective nonordinary consciousness, in an ancient ritual that, through the ages, has
been carefully tooled and produced with many human skills.

Uniting to Heal, to ‘‘Make Good’’—The Pygmies

Colin Turnbull came across this great communitas in the Ituri forest, in an experience
that took him far beyond the boundaries of reality as he knew it at that time. It was an
experience of the collective becoming unified in a change of consciousness. It hap-
pened during a repeatedly enacted and yet strongly effective ritual among the Mbuti
(see Turnbull 1990). We see Turnbull in the forest with the pygmy singers, participat-
ing in their curing, or, as they call it, in their ‘‘making good’’ rituals. As Turnbull
became more and more involved in the ritual process, he noticed a change in his
No longer looking for any explanation, [I was] just intent on enjoying myself. . . . And by the
same illogic I felt free to join in the singing. And in an instant it all came together: there was
no longer any lack of congruence, and it seemed as though the song was being sung by a single
singer. . . . Then I made the mistake of opening my eyes and saw that while all the others had their
eyes open too, their gaze was vacant . . . there were so many bodies sitting around, singing
away. . . . Something had been added to the importance of sound, another mode of perception
90 Edith L. B. Turner

that, while it in no way negated the aural or visual modes of observation, none the less went far
beyond them. (p. 56)

By identifying himself with their communitas and by sharing their goals, Turnbull’s
perception of the social process shifted in a qualitative way that opened an expanded
ontological realm for direct access. His participatory observation of and active engage-
ment with the ritual process opened for him a new horizon of conceptualization. Turn-
bull argues that social research will benefit from participatory methodologies:
What is needed is a technique of participation that demands total involvement of our whole being.
Indeed it is perhaps only when we truly and fully participate . . . that we find this essentially
subjective approach to be in no way incompatible with the more conventional rational, objective,
scientific approach. On the contrary, they complement each other and that complementarity
is an absolute requirement if we are to come to any full understanding of the social process . . . it
provides a wealth of data that could never be acquired by any other means. (p. 51)

The enchantment of achieving a perfect unison in music did the work of creating a
group connection that was here not a matter of seeing spirits but a kind of power that
would effect curing. This curing takes place in a collective environment. The group acts
as a ‘‘single singer’’ and penetrates into a world ‘‘far beyond the aural and visual’’
(p. 51). Nigel Rapport has written (personal communication, January 1998) that such
a thing is only an illusion, it cannot be effected; mere individual act is all that is hap-
pening, employing for social purposes a temporary artificially constructed uniformity
of performance. He reiterates, ‘‘There is no revelation’’—there is not even anything
truly social of itself. Rapport has fixed his sights on the theory that in the Durkheimian
world of ‘‘social fact,’’ where God is actually society writ large, all behavior is merely
constructed. But it is in anthropology that the illusion arises. Anthropology has been
suffering for decades from the self-imposed limitation of dissective reasoning. Sadly,
owing to their ironclad dogma of detached observation, the disciplines of social and
cultural anthropology have been ignored by the general Western public because their
teachings are at variance with the experience of ordinary people.
If we want to apply the idea of a constructed world in the Mbuti pygmy case, we
must recognize that they do know their constructed world; it is the world of their
own mundane village, separated from the forest, separated from the place where the
communitas songs are sung. The Mbuti people know that the village is the world with-
out music or healing. Turnbull traces a dichotomy consisting of the mundane village
and the liminal forest, where ‘‘the forest’’ is the other side, a world where the ritual
songs really have power to heal.
Turnbull found that he had struck a mode of perception that cannot be reduced to
aural and visual modes of observation. In other words, he had experienced an exten-
sion of his socially conditioned ontological matrix. In a different context, this percep-
tual extension can be recognized in the medieval figure of the wizard, who is capable of
The Soul and Communication between Souls 91

penetrating the membrane surrounding the world, about to pierce through to the
starry spheres (see the early sixteenth-century woodcut in the Bettmann Archive). In
today’s world, many ethnographers have experienced these matters as well.

Uniting to Change the Weather—Iñupiat

A telling record of spirit power is an episode among the Iñupiat people of northern
Alaska at a time when the people had been dying from nuclear pollution inflicted by
the U.S. government. They had subsequently fought for and won the cleansing of the
environment, and had even received an apology from President Bill Clinton in 1996
(E. Turner 1997, 95–109).
The village is located on a long gravel spit pointing west, with a north and south
shore. I paid a visit in April 1996, when the warm current was coming up the Bering
Straits, and found the whale men looking anxiously out of their windows to the south
shore for ‘‘water cloud,’’ the sign of open water in the long-frozen ocean. They needed
a north wind to open the water. But the weather was warm and muggy, 26 F, and the
wind was from the south, blowing the ice against their harbored south shore. There
would be no whales for their major food, for there was no water through which a
whale could come. They were restless: the wind was wrong.
After church on Sunday a call came through on the citizens band radio: ‘‘Any volun-
teers to bring a boat into the church?’’ Aha! I remembered how they brought a boat
into the church the first year I was there, and how they blessed it and prayed for
whales. I remembered all the whaling captains standing in the sanctuary. I wandered
outside in the snow to watch the laborious task of moving a sixteen-foot boat across
the village to the church. Then the whale men lifted the boat through the church en-
trance, sideways, with banging and side slipping, until they could finally get it through
the door and the right way up again, then up the aisle. Sled and boat were set up as
on the ice and at sea, but this time in church, where the altar boy was changing the
colored altar cloth for a white one. Whales like white. The preacher wore white. The
paddles in the boat were all scoured white and set upright—as when a whale is
caught—to send a signal to other boats meaning ‘‘catch.’’
The church was filling rapidly. All twenty-two whaling captains, including the
hunter with the greatest catch, Henry Nashookpuk (known for his peculiarly Iñupiat
gifts), stood in two rows on each side of the boat. The preacher took up his station at
the prow and began. We all sang, about ‘‘the whales and all that moves in the waters,’’
‘‘the sea is his and he made it,’’ and ‘‘when I in awesome wonder consider all the
worlds,’’ songs that brought tears to the eyes of many of us. We all gathered at
the boat and put our hands on it, with others touching us behind. Then we began to
pray for the wind to change. The sound rose until my ears felt they would burst. I
prayed as hard as I could. There were weird cryings from the crowd, with arms whirl-
ing on high. The intensity rose and rose and rose. I looked over at Henry, the chief
92 Edith L. B. Turner

whaling captain. He appeared calm and faintly happy. I relaxed. Soon the hullabaloo
was over. We finished with one more hymn, with most of us experiencing chills—
that is, in an inspired state. The congregation started to leave; the men took the boat
down and out the door. We left the church and walked along until we had rounded
the end of the building and come into the open. There it was. The wind had changed
to the north. It blew icy and fresh from far up the village at 10 F, falling freely on our
cheeks and on the south shore. It would blow the ice away and there would be water.
No one said a word.
The next day there was water, and the whalers went down on the ice to break a trail
over the ice ridges for the snowmobiles. By Tuesday there were several crews down at
the water, watching. Several whales were seen and eventually caught.
This event was in keeping with the shamans’ intercommunication with the winds.
One of the shamans’ powers is altering the weather. In Iñupiat religion the weather,
sila, is itself a spirit. Iñupiat shamans have often helped to modify sila (E. Turner
1996). On this occasion the people did not drum and dance, for the ritual was held
in church. But they were using the same powers, the power of singing and the well-
recognized collective act, prayer to a helping spirit.

Conclusion: A Broader Ontology of Consciousness

Social unity of a nonordinary kind appears to be a vital catalyst in helping people

discern the presence of conscious beings or powers that are beyond the confines of
individual selves. Here I have presented scenes of unity of that type in action and in
expanded consciousness, seen in the same way many times. Expanded consciousness
is present when the oracle-speaking monk in Tibet is the focus of his assistants, with
drumming and songs to bring the god. Having received the god—a spiritual entity
who of his own will enters the monk—the monk is weighted down by the fifty-pound
crown, and charges out. He is the god. He gives psychic power to the people and
receives it from them. Similarly, the Ndembu singers and drummers in Africa gather
around with a focused purpose, to cure the woman afflicted with a spirit. The sick
Ndembu woman endures bloodletting, is encouraged to reveal her nastiest grudges,
falls, then becomes the center of an extraordinary sense of social release, with the spirit
manifesting itself in material form as it is extracted by the medicine man from her
body. The Mbuti pygmies take Turnbull into the forest away from village, food, and
business, and share their songs. They merge as they sing, and they have incorporated
Turnbull into their shared reality. This social group has merged. Then we gain a sense
of the private world of the Dene Tha, a people careful not to spill their precious talk
with those who cannot receive it. Theirs is a world where life is like an electric current
that needs two poles—one simply cannot talk unless the hearer is in that current too,
unless he or she also knows one’s spiritual world. If all are in the current, the stories
The Soul and Communication between Souls 93

they tell one another are about the returning soul, messages from the dead, second
sight. The tribe and its religion become a community of experiencers. The people’s sup-
port for each other is essential to the process of communication and enables the spiri-
tual information to get through.
Scientific methodology requires us to apply Occam’s razor, the rule of parsimony.
Thus we should not go out of our way to invent complicated explanations so as to
avoid accepting the possibility of the existence of spirit being and powers. When work-
ing on unexplained events it is more parsimonious, and more just, simply to listen to
what those adept at these matters are saying and begin to take them seriously. Then,
for us to understand what they say, we might start by using our own intuition. One
might be able to perceive that reservoir of power somewhere—and classically the
power is not ‘‘owned’’ by the giver, it comes through him or her and is well-nigh im-
possible to pin down, that is, to define. People know it very well when they experience
it. Victor Turner called it communitas—his name for it. It seems to be where healing
takes place, where the burden is lifted. It is God to Monsignor Chester Michael, who
trains men and women in the skills of spiritual direction. For him, Jung’s collective
unconscious is God. You receive it. It is somehow the Holy Spirit. It has the initiative,
you do not. One feels that the question of how this is so will only be answered from
some similar source, and differently for every individual.
One might start with the soul of a person, and see that it has many ‘‘prepositional
plugs,’’ as Victor Turner put it—with, to, in, for, by, from, of, against, through; all
kinds of ‘‘extension cords’’ from one person to another. Around and part of and
through all this ‘‘connective tissue’’ floods an impalpable element that carries—as the
air carries our voices—the thoughts from person to person, the body language and
state, the love, the shaman’s powers. It is the place in which the halo shines and where
the angels dwell; people you meet can put their hand near your hand or above your
head and feel it, and vice versa. It is an integument, it is what contains us, like the
tent that shelters the Iñupiat crew on the ice, as the Iñupiat put it. There are ways to
feed and develop and honor this ‘‘element.’’ A whole world of skills exists in the
world’s societies.
Drawing together the resistant and ragged threads between science and an accep-
tance of an expanded ontology is not easy. A reexamination of what living societies
actually do and have experienced may be a path—at least from anthropology—to a
meeting place of disparate disciplines. Science is not too proud to examine what is,
and it is surely not yet complete, and has no absolute and unshakable tenets except
The examples in this chapter are but a few of those available to teach that people’s
lives go deep, that what they experience at that depth is true material to be respected
in its own right, and that to exclude it causes science itself to become a dogma and lack
fruitfulness. In this chapter it is only the material itself that can truly speak, and the
94 Edith L. B. Turner

reader, like the Dene Tha tribespeople, will need to tune in on the same wavelength
and begin to experience the events on a truly personal level.


Research on the Ndembu was funded by the Carter-Woodson Foundation for African and African-
American Research, and also by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. Re-
search on the Iñupiat was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Virginia.
I am grateful to these organizations for their support. My warm thanks are also due to James and
Mary McConnell for their sponsorship of my research in general.

1. V. Turner (1969, 132) mentions ‘‘the spontaneity and immediacy of communitas [spiritual
moments of fellowship]—as opposed to the jural-political character of structure . . . [and he refers
to events of] existential or spontaneous communitas—approximately what the hippies today
would call ‘a happening.’ ’’

2. I apologize for any bias in my use of examples in this chapter. I am a kind of Catholic, though I
attempt to participate all the way with other religions I have encountered and to give them full
credit in their own right. I maintain that none of the religions or spiritualities are superior to any


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3 Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought in the Era of the

James Maffie


Nahua ontology is monistic. It claims that there is a single reality: teotl. Teotl is the unceasingly
self-generating and self-transmuting sacred force or energy that originally created as well as
continues to recreate the cosmos. Teotl is the unified totality of all things. All things consist of
teotl. All things are ultimately identical with teotl. Nahua ontology is processive because teotl is
essentially becoming, change, and motion. What’s more, teotl is essentially undifferentiated,
unordered, and unstructured, and as a consequence, ineffable. Language, concepts, and
categories cannot be employed literally in representing or knowing teotl. Humans know teotl via
neither sense experience nor reason but through mystical experience. Teotl manifests itself
cyclically in multiple aspects, preeminent among which is duality. This duality takes the form of
the ceaseless opposition of mutually arising, interdependent, and complementary polarities. As
instances of these dual polarities, consciousness and matter along with mind and body are
merely two aspects or facets of teotl, one with teotl, and hence ultimately one with one another.


Wisdom was highly prized by Nahuatl-speaking peoples in Central Mexico in the era of
the Conquest (1521). Nahuas believed wisdom provided humans with the practical
knowledge needed for living their lives artfully and keeping their balance on ‘‘the
slippery surface of the earth.’’1 Wisdom affords humans some measure of well-being
in an otherwise evanescent life filled with sorrow and suffering, here on an imper-
manent, ultimately doomed earth. Living artfully and in balance requires that one
correctly understand the nature of reality. Nahua tlamatinime (‘‘knowers of things,’’
sages, philosophers; tlamatini (singular)) accordingly pursued the ontological quest
and set about ordering the cosmos in terms of such concepts as being, nonbeing, and
becoming. They sought answers to such questions as ‘‘What is real?’’ and ‘‘What is
the nature of consciousness?’’ Nahuas did not regard the ontological quest as an idle
pastime divorced from the practical exigencies of daily life; rather, they regarded the
98 James Maffie

answers to these questions as having intrinsic normative and universal import for how
humans should conduct their lives. Sixteenth-century Nahua thought provides us with
a fresh approach to the foregoing questions, one that has been largely if not wholly
ignored by Anglo-American and continental philosophers, and, what’s more, one that
deserves a voice in contemporary discussions alongside Western, East Asian, South
Asian, and African approaches.

The Nature of Reality

Nahua ontology maintains that a single, dynamic, self-generating sacred force or en-
ergy originally created as well as continually recreates, regenerates, and permeates the
cosmos. Nahuas call this force teotl. Teotl is essentially becoming, motion, and change.
It manifests itself cyclically and regularly in multiple aspects, preeminent among
which is duality. This duality takes the form of the endless opposition of mutually
interrelated and mutually interdependent, complementary polarities that divide, alter-
nately dominate, and explain the diversity, movement, and momentary structure of
the cosmos. The ceaseless becoming of the cosmos is defined and constituted by the
endless oscillation of these complementary polarities. The overall result of this dialec-
tical oscillation is an overarching balance. Consciousness and matter as well as mind
and body are not two essentially different kinds of substance but rather two aspects or
facets of one and the same single reality: teotl.

At the heart of Nahua ontology stands the thesis that there exists a single, vivify-
ing, eternally self-generating-and-self-conceiving as well as self-regenerating-and-self-
reconceiving, sacred energy, power, or force: what Nahuas call teotl.2 The cosmos and
its contents are generated by teotl, from teotl, as one aspect, facet, or moment of its
own eternal and unceasing process of self-generation-and-self-conception and self-
regeneration-and-self-reconception. Teotl continuously and simultaneously generates
and conceives as well as permeates, encompasses, and shapes the cosmos and its con-
tents as part of its own eternal process of self-generation-and-self-conception and self-
regeneration-and-self-reconception. Teotl’s self-generation-and-self-conception and
self-regeneration-and-self-reconception are identical with its generation-conception
and regeneration-reconception of the cosmos. Both processes spring from teotl’s si-
multaneously possessing such qualities as active and passive, and male and female.
Since process, becoming, and transmutation are essential qualities of teotl, teotl is
properly understood as ever-flowing and ever-changing energy-in-motion rather than
as a static entity or being. Since it better reflects the dynamic nature of teotl, I pro-
pose we gloss teotl as a verb denoting a process rather than as a noun denoting a static
being. (In doing so I follow David Cooper’s (1997, 69–73) suggestion that we gloss God
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 99

of the mystical teachings of the Jewish Kabbalah as a verb rather than as a noun.) So
construed, teotl refers to the eternal, cosmic process of ‘‘teotlizing.’’ Finally, the cosmos
and its contents—including what humans ordinarily regard as mind and body—are
merely aspects of teotl and ultimately identical with teotl. As such, they, too, are ever-
flowing and ever-changing, energy-in-motion.

Dialectical Polar Monism

Teotl presents itself cyclically in multiple aspects, preeminent among which is duality.
This duality takes the form of the opposition of contrary yet mutually interdependent,
mutually arising, and mutually complementary polarities that divide the cosmos, alter-
nately dominate the cosmos, and explain the diversity, movement, and momentary
structure of the cosmos. Among these polarities are being and not-being, order and dis-
order, active and passive, life and death, light and darkness, and male and female. Con-
sider life and death, for example. Death contains the fertile, energizing seed of life; life
contains the seed of death. Neither can exist without its opposite. They are simply two
facets of a single energy: teotl. The artists of Tlatilco and Oaxaca expressed this idea ar-
tistically by fashioning a split-faced mask, one half alive and fleshed, the other half,
dead, fleshless, and skeletal (see figures 3.1 and 3.2).3 The masks are intentionally am-
biguous. Skulls simultaneously symbolize both life and death, since life arises from the

Figure 3.1
The mask portrays a human face, one half fleshed, the other half skeletal. In this manner native
artists expressed the dialectical interdependence and ultimate oneness of life and death (and
by extension, order and disorder, light and darkness, active and passive, male and female, etc.)
(ceramic, Tlatilco, Las Bocas, Mexico, c. 230 B.C.–100 A.D., Museo Nacional de Anthropologia,
Mexico City).
100 James Maffie

Figure 3.2
This mask (like figure 3.1) is correctly perceived as a single, dynamic life-death unity of mutually
arising, complementary opposites. After years of education and ritual preparation, one is able to
perceive the face ‘‘unmasked,’’ and in so doing discern the interdependence, interrelatedness,
and ultimate unity of the complementary properties presented. When perceived correctly, one
sees the face as neither alive nor dead, yet simultaneously both alive and dead (ceramic, Mixtec
culture, Solyaltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, c. 600–900, Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico

bones of the dead. Flesh simultaneously symbolizes both death and life, since death
arises from the flesh of the living.
The Mixtec artists who painted-scribed the indigenous document known to us as the
Codex Vaticanus B expressed the same idea via a pictoglyph depicting Mictlantecuhtli
(the god of death) and Quetzalcoatl Ehecatl (the god of life) sharing a single spine.
Like the masks in figures 3.1 and 3.2, this image artistically and symbolically presents
that which Mesoamerican thinkers uniformly averred cannot be articulated discur-
sively, namely, the mutual interdependence, interrelatedness, and arising of life and
death, order and disorder, being and not-being, and so on.
The cosmos consists of the unending, cyclical tug-of-war between or dialectical
oscillation of these polarities—the totality of which is simply the manifold self-
presentation of teotl. The cosmos is consequently unstable, transitory, and devoid of
any permanent order, being, or structure. This notwithstanding, teotl is nevertheless
characterized by an enduring pattern or regularity. How can this be? Teotl is the dy-
namic, sacred force generating and constituting the endless oscillations of the cosmos.
It is the balance immanent within the endless, dialectical swing of interdependent
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 101

polarities. Because it is essentially and hence perpetually self-transmuting, teotl is prop-

erly understood in terms of becoming rather than being or not-being. Being and not-
being are, after all, two dialectically interrelated polarities of teotl and, as such, strictly
speaking not applicable to teotl. For the same reasons teotl is properly understood in
terms of unorder rather than order or disorder.
Rhett Young’s and Roger Ames’s (1977) account of Lao Tzu’s characterization of the
Tao offers insight into this aspect of teotl:

Lao Tzu’s Tao . . . is unchanging in the sense that it does not increase or diminish, but it is con-
stantly changing in the sense that it is in perpetual motion: ‘‘It revolves without pause’’ (Chapter
XXV), and the myriad of things follow its interminable change. All things in the process of
motion and change ultimately decline and perish, but the Tao alone is eternally free from decay.
It alone ‘‘stands solitary and does not change’’ (Chapter XXV), having the capacity to transcend
decay and decomposition.4

Teotl, like the Tao, is unique and absolute—as opposed to the myriad created things
in the cosmos that are multifarious and relative. Both teotl and the Tao are eternal
and remain unaffected by the changes of created phenomena. Both teotl and the Tao
are the regularity and pattern manifested in the cosmos. They are the warp and woof
of the fabric of the cosmos. They are what the cosmos is as well as how the cosmos
is. In light of this, Nahua and Taoist philosophies contend it is a mistake to conceive
order/disorder, life/death, light/darkness, male/female, and so on as mutually exclu-
sive, mutually hostile, logically contradictory dualities. As a consequence, both con-
sider it folly to seek one polar opposite (e.g., life) at the expense of the other (e.g.,
I call this aspect of Nahua metaphysics ‘‘dialectical polar monism’’: the single reality,
teotl, presents itself as the ceaseless and regular dialectical oscillation of polar oppo-
sites. The cosmos consists of the ceaseless back-and-forth movement of these polarities
and in so doing exhibits the enduring pattern of dialectical polarity. Teotl’s process of
self-presentation provides the immanent balance and pattern that defines the cosmos’s
endless oscillation between order and chaos, being and not-being, and so forth. Fi-
nally, dialectical polar monism (like Taoism) differs from eschatological varieties of
dualism, which, for example, conceive order and disorder, light and darkness, and
so on as mutually exclusive contradictories and that maintain in addition that order
and light triumph over disorder and darkness at the end of history. Teotl moves cycli-
cally, not linearly. As mutually arising and mutually interdependent complementa-
rities, light and darkness, order and disorder, and so forth alternate eternally without

Nahua ontology also understands teotl in pantheistic terms. Nahua pantheism claims:
(1) everything that exists constitutes an all-inclusive and interrelated unity; (2) this
102 James Maffie

unity is sacred; (3) everything that exists is substantively constituted by the sacred; (4)
everything that exists is substantively identical and hence one with the sacred; (5) the
sacred is teotl; and (6) teotl is not an agent or minded being possessing the character-
istics of a ‘‘person.’’ In short, there is only one thing, teotl, and all other apparent
forms or aspects of existence (e.g., consciousness and matter) are constituted by and
ultimately identical with teotl.6 Teotl is therefore more than the unified totality of
things; it literally is everything and everything literally is it. It not only subsumes and
substantively exhausts the cosmos, but the cosmos and its contents—sun, earth, water,
fire, humans, and so on—are nothing more than self-presentations of teotl’s ever-
moving energy-in-motion. Teotl is the unifying metaphysical-cum-naturalistic princi-
ple of the cosmos; the all-encompassing, everlastingly creative energy-in-motion whose
own ceaseless changing presents itself as the ceaseless becoming of the cosmos. Lastly,
teotl is immanent in that it penetrates deeply into every detail of cosmos and exists
wholly within the multitude of existing things, yet teotl is also transcendent in that it
is not exhausted by the multitude of existing things.

Teotl as Creative Self-Disguising Artist and Shaman

Nahua metaphysics conceives teotl’s original generation and continuous regeneration
of the cosmos as its artistic-creative self-presentation and self-transformation. Teotl is a
quintessentially artistic-creative process that eternally regenerates and transmutes itself
as the cosmos—not a divine legislator who imposes order upon chaos from outside,
for example in the manner of Yahweh. Given teotl’s essential dynamic and artistic-
creative nature, the cosmos and its contents are teotl’s ongoing work of performance
art. Nahua metaphysics alternatively characterizes the cosmos as teotl’s nahual—that
is, teotl’s disguise or mask. The word nahual derives from nahualli, signifying a form-
changing shaman. This etymology suggests that this characterization of teotl is rooted
in indigenous Mesoamerican shamanism.7 In sum, the cosmos and its contents are
teotl’s self-generated, creative-artistic, self-disguising, and shamanic self-masking and,
as such, dynamic presentations of teotl.
Teotl artistically masks and disguises itself from humans in a variety of ways. First, it
masks itself as the apparent thingness of existents—that is, the appearance of static
entities or beings such as humans, trees, insects, rocks, and so on. This is illusory since
reality is dynamic and processive. Contrary to appearances, one and all are dynamic
aspects of teotl’s sacred energy-in-motion. Second, teotl disguises itself as the apparent
multiplicity of existents—that is, the appearance of multiple, discretely and indepen-
dently existing entities such as mountains, birds, plants, etc. This is illusory since there
is only one thing: teotl. Finally, teotl masks itself as the apparent distinctness, indepen-
dence, and irreconcilable oppositionality of life and death, male and female, and so
forth. This is illusory since these are not only mutually arising and interdependent
but also ultimately one with teotl.
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 103

The Nature of Earthly Existence

In light of the foregoing, Nahua tlamatinime standardly characterize earthly things as
painted images and symbols on teotl’s sacred canvas. Aquiauhtzin, for example, char-
acterizes the earth as ‘‘the house of paintings,’’8 while his contemporary, Xayacamach,
writes, ‘‘your home is here, in the midst of the paintings.’’9 Like images on canvas
painted by human artists, the images on teotl’s sacred, cosmic canvas are ephem-
eral, fragile, and evanescent. The fifteenth-century Tezcocan tlamatini Nezahualcoyotl
With flowers You paint, O Giver of Life!
With songs You give color, with songs you give life on the earth.
Later you will destroy eagles and tigers: we live only in Your painting here, on the earth.
With black ink you will blot out all that was friendship, brotherhood, nobility.
You give shading to those who will live on the earth.
we live only in Your book of paintings, here on the earth.10

Since they regard everything earthly as teotl’s artistic self-disguise, as aspects of teotl’s
self-generated shamanic mask, Nahua tlamatinime regard everything earthly as illu-
sory and dreamlike. Expressing this point, the tlamatini Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui
writes: ‘‘We come only to dream, it is not true [ahnelli; literally ‘‘unrooted’’], it is not
true [ahnelli] that we come on earth to live.’’11
Nahua philosophers conceive the illusoriness of earthly existence in epistemological
rather than metaphysical terms. Illusion, in other words, is not an ontological category
as it is, say, for Plato. In the Republic (Book VI), Plato employs the notion of illusion: to
characterize an inferior or lower grade of reality; to distinguish this inferior grade of re-
ality from a superior, higher one (the Forms); and to deny that earthly existence is fully
real. This conception of illusion entails an ontological dualism that divides the cosmos
into two fundamentally different kinds of things: illusion and reality.
Nahua philosophers employ the concept of illusion as an epistemological category
(as do Maya philosophers, Dogen, and Samkara).12 They use it to make the epistemo-
logical point that the natural condition of human beings is to misperceive and misap-
prehend teotl and hence be deceived and misled by teotl’s mask. They do not use the
conception of illusion to make the metaphysical point that teotl’s mask and earthly ex-
istence constitute a distinct ontological category that is substandard or not fully real.
The misleading, dreamlike character of earthly existence is a function of our human
point of view—not a function of a metaphysical dualism inherent in the makeup of
things. Illusion consists of our mistaking the myriad things that compose teotl’s mask
as faithfully disclosing the nature of teotl. Such a conception of illusion is compatible
with Nahua monism since human illusion, misperceiving, and unknowing are simply
aspects of the one reality, teotl.
Viewed from this perspective, it is our own misperceiving and misjudging that
prevents us from seeing reality as it really is. As we have seen, humans commonly
104 James Maffie

misperceive and mistake teotl’s multifold dual polarities (e.g., life/death, male/female)
as mutually exclusive, logical contradictories. Humans commonly misperceive and
misattribute discrete, independent, and static existence to the multiplicity of individ-
ual things (e.g., humans, plants, and stars). Consequently, when humans ordinarily
gaze on the cosmos, they perceive teotl under an illusory description or set of catego-
ries. They perceive teotl as an individual human or dog, as maleness or death, and so
on—not teotl itself. In short: they perceive teotl’s nahual.
Consider figures 3.1 and 3.2. One ordinarily perceives each mask exclusively either
as a living face or as a dead face. One flip-flops back and forth between the mask’s
two sides but never perceives them as a mutually interdependent, dynamic dialectical
unity. Perceiving the mask in this manner is mistaken. However, on acquiring greater
understanding of teotl, one is able to perceive the mask correctly, namely, as a dy-
namic dialectical unity that is simultaneously both-living-and-dead-and-yet-neither-
living-nor-dead. The mask is both-living-and-dead (where life and death are conceived
as mutually compatible polarities) yet simultaneously neither-living-nor-dead (where
life and death are conceived as mutually exclusive, logical contradictories). Yet the
both-yet-neither mask is not metaphysically hidden from us in the manner that
Cartesian-style epistemology conceives the noumenal object as being hidden behind a
veil of sensory phenomena. The both-yet-neither mask is present immediately and di-
rectly to our eyes. We are simply unable to perceive it. In short, the both-yet-neither
mask is epistemologically but not metaphysically hidden from us. Analogously, Nahua
philosophy claims that when humans perceive the world uncritically, what they per-
ceive is teotl as an individual human, as male/female, and so on—rather than teotl
unmasked—that is, teotl as teotl. Humans’ inability to perceive teotl unmasked is not
due to teotl’s noumenal-like hiding behind a veil of perception but rather due to
humans’ inability to perceive what is directly present before their eyes. Teotl is episte-
mologically, not metaphysically, hidden from us.
What is it that humans realize when understanding teotl? In brief, they realize the
processive nature of teotl, the unity, singularity, and identity of all things, dialectical
polar monism, and pantheism. They understand that reality consists of a single, all-
encompassing energy-in-motion and that polar opposites such as life and death, order
and disorder, and so on are constituted by this energy, self-presentations of this en-
ergy, and aspects or moments of this energy. They understand that consciousness and
matter (mind and body) are analogous to the half-fleshed, half-skeletal masks above.
Humans customarily view consciousness and matter in mutually exclusive, either/
or terms, when in fact teotl is simultaneously both-consciousness-and-matter-yet-
neither-consciousness-nor-matter; simultaneously both-mind-and-body-yet-neither-
mind-nor-body. On understanding teotl, humans also come to appreciate the
profound inadequacy of literal language for expressing their understanding of teotl.
Nahua tlamatinime consequently turn to song-poems, music, painting, and other
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 105

modes of creative artistry to express their understanding of teotl. The truest, most au-
thentic expression of one’s understanding of teotl involves the poetic use of language.
(One does not employ language literally as in the present exercise. For example, in try-
ing to characterize teotl literally I find myself constrained by the subject-predicate
structure of English. This inescapably fosters the mistaken ideas that teotl is distinct
from the cosmos and that teotl is an agent or minded being who chooses to create the
cosmos and to disguise itself from humans.)
Several seemingly paradoxical consequences follow from the present interpretation.
First, illusion and nonillusion enjoy equal ontological status: they are equally real. Illu-
sion is nothing more than teotl’s shamanic self-disguise, hence an aspect of teotl, and
hence every bit as real as teotl. Second, the impermanent, mutable, and ephemeral en-
joy equal ontological footing with the permanent, immutable, and stable. Everything
earthly—its impermanence, mutability, and evanescence notwithstanding—is fully
real because a manifestation of and ultimately identical with teotl. Unlike most West-
ern metaphysics, Nahua metaphysics does not therefore equate reality with being,
immutability, or permanence. Instead, like pre-Han East Asian philosophies (e.g., Tao-
ism and Confucianism) and many native North and Meso-American philosophies
(e.g., Mayan, Sioux, and Navajo), Nahua metaphysics equates reality with movement,
change, and becoming. Third, human consciousness and experience (including human
misperceiving, misunderstanding, and knowing) are simply further aspects of teotl’s
artistic-cum-shamanic self-expression. Human misperceiving consists of teotl’s disguis-
ing itself from itself, whereas human knowing consist of teotl’s knowing itself. Lastly,
insofar as humans come to know teotl, they come to know that which is unordered,
unstructured, mutable, and impermanent. In this respect Nahua epistemology differs
from most Western epistemologies that claim that humans can only know that which
is ordered, structured, permanent, and immutable.13

Teotl as Source, Standard, and Object of Intrinsic Value

Teotl serves as the foundation of Nahua axiology. Teotl is the ultimate source, stan-
dard, and object of intrinsic value and hence the ultimate standard and object of
appropriate (right) behavior. In this manner teotl functions as does the Form of the
Good in Plato’s Republic, hoz’ho’ in Navajo philosophy (Witherspoon 1977), and the
Tao in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (Young and Ames 1977). Like the latter philosophies,
Nahua metaphysics also denies the fact-value distinction. Intrinsic value, along with
the intrinsically normative implications of reality for human conduct, are rooted in
teotl and as such are objective facts woven into the fabric of the universe. Nahua axiol-
ogy maintains that balance-and-purity constitutes what is intrinsically valuable, good,
or worth pursuing for human beings as well as the ideal condition for human beings.
Nahua ethics conceives right conduct in terms of the promotion of balance-and-
106 James Maffie

The Nature of Consciousness

Human consciousness is one of many facets and self-presentations of teotl, and as such,
ultimately identical to teotl. Consciousness is a process rather than a static entity or
state (as suggested by contemporary Western psychology’s talk of ‘‘states of conscious-
ness’’). Nahua thinkers conceive cognition, knowledge, understanding, ignorance, and
delusion as ways of moving about in the world—not as static states or momentary
events. Properly stated, a person cognizes knowingly, ignorantly, and so on.
The human body serves as the temporary location for three animistic forces or ener-
gies, each residing in a different animistic center. Tonalli (from the root tona, ‘‘heat’’) is
located in the head. It provides the body with character, vigor, and the energy needed
for growth and development. Individuals acquire their tonalli from the sun. A person’s
tonalli may leave her body, as in the case of dreams and shamanic journeys. Such jour-
neys allow humans to perceive places far removed from their bodies. Tonalli is ritually
introduced into an infant as one of her animistic entities. It is closely united to the per-
son as her link to the universe and as the determining factor of her destiny. Everything
belonging to a human by virtue of her relation to the cosmos receives the name tonalli.
Teyolia (‘‘that which gives life to people’’) is located in the heart. It provides memory,
vitality, inclination, emotion, knowledge, and wisdom. Unlike tonalli, a person’s teyo-
lia is not separable from her while alive. It is that animistic force ‘‘that goes beyond
after death’’ and enjoys a postmortem existence in the world of the dead. Nahuas liken
teyolia to ‘‘divine fire.’’15 Finally, ihiyotl (‘‘breath, respiration’’) resides in the liver. It
provides passion, cupidity, bravery, hatred, love, and happiness. Of the three, teyolia
most closely resembles the European notion of spirit or soul.16
Every human is the living center and confluence of these three vital forces. The three
direct the physiological and psychological processes of humans, giving each individual
her own unique physiological and psychological character or temperament. All three
must operate harmoniously with one another in order to produce a complete, mentally
and physically balanced person. Disturbance of any one affects the others. Only during
life on earth are all three forces fully integrated within humans. After death, each force
goes its own way. Since each of the three forces resides in its respective bodily organ, its
character is affected by the character of that organ. If the body and its organs suffer
from damage, disease, or imbalance, the three forces are unable to function properly.
At this time we can only speculate how Nahua sages might assess the effects on con-
sciousness of such recent developments as commissurotomies and organ transplants.
Yet it does seem clear that they would regard these activities as profoundly altering
the nature and character of a person’s consciousness.
The indigenous text from Puebla known as the Codex Laud contains (p. 44) an artis-
tic rendering of these three animating energies separating from one another and from
the human body upon death. According to Alfredo López Austin (1988, 316), the im-
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 107

age contains skull and bones falling backward. These represent the cadaver emptied of
its animistic powers. A serpent emerging from the crown of the head represents tonalli,
a second serpent springing from the heart represents teyolia, and a third serpent leav-
ing the stomach and intestines represents ihiyotl. The fact that each force is symbol-
ized by a serpent is significant since serpents signify rebirth and transformation in
Mesoamerican thought.
Their mutual differences notwithstanding, all three forces are instances of the un-
ceasing motion and energy of teotl, suggesting that the three are ultimately neither
fully discrete nor separate. Human consciousness and experience are the joint product
of the three forces while united in the body, and as such, aspects of teotl. Conscious-
ness and experience are constituent elements of organic life and enjoy an equal onto-
logical footing with the physical processes of the human body. They are not, pace
epiphenomenalism, mere byproducts of the physical. Head, heart, and liver serve
merely as temporary human locations for these three forces.
Humans do not exclusively possess these forces. Tonalli is present in other living
things such as animals and plants. Teyolia is present in living things such as humans,
animals, and plants as well as nonliving things such as towns, mountains, lakes, and
sky. Both living and nonliving things possess teyolia by virtue of their ultimate one-
ness with teotl. According to Sandstrom (1991, 258f.), contemporary Nahuas in Vera-
cruz believe every created thing possesses its own share of this universal, vivifying
force. The heart is simply a fragment of this force.

Epistemological Dimensions of Consciousness

Nahua epistemology conceives tlamatiliztli (knowing, wisdom) in terms of neltiliztli.
Scholars standardly gloss neltiliztli (and its cognates) as ‘‘truth’’ (and its cognates).17
Unlike most Western philosophers, however, Nahua philosophers do not conceive
truth in terms of the correspondence between propositions (or sentences) and facts or
in terms of the internal coherence among propositions (or sentences). According to
Miguel León-Portilla (1963, 8), ‘‘ ‘Truth’ . . . was to be identified with well-grounded
stability.’’ To say that a person cognizes truly is to say that she cognizes with well-
grounded stability, well-foundedness, or well-rootedness. The only thing providing
such well-grounded stability and well-rootedness is teotl.
Willard Gingerich (1987) defends León-Portilla’s gloss of neltiliztli yet contends
well-rootedness does not exhaust its full content. The Nahuas’ conception also con-
tains an ineliminable Heideggerian-style component: ‘‘non-referential alethia—[i.e.]
‘disclosure’ ’’ (p. 104), ‘‘unconcealedness’’ (p. 102), ‘‘unhiddenness’’ (p. 105), and
‘‘self-deconcealing’’ (p. 105). That which is neltiliztli is both well rooted and nonrefer-
entially unconcealing or disclosing. Neltiliztli (truth) as well-rootedness-cum-alethia
is a nonsemantic notion since it eschews correspondence, reference, representation,
aboutness, fit and successful description.
108 James Maffie

What’s more, Nahua sages characterize utterances as well as persons, things, and
activities equally and without equivocation in terms of neltiliztli. This, too, distin-
guishes their notion of truth from Western-style correspondence and coherence
notions. That which is well rooted in teotl is genuine, true, authentic, pure, and well-
balanced as well as nonreferentially disclosing and unconcealing of teotl (see Gingerich
1987, 1988). Created things exist along a continuum ranging from those that are well
rooted (nelli) in teotl and thus faithfully present, disclose, and authentically embody
teotl at one end, to those that are poorly rooted (ahnelli) in teotl and thus neither faith-
fully present, disclose, nor authentically embody teotl. The former, which includes fine
jade and quetzal plumes, possess what Ninian Smart (1966) calls ‘‘special presence.’’18
Humans cognize knowingly if and only if they cognize with well-rootedness-cum-
alethia, and they cognize with well-rootedness-cum-alethia if and only if their cogniz-
ing is well rooted in teotl. Nahuas conceive well-rootedness-cum-alethia in terms of
burgeoning (Brotherston 1979). Burgeoning and rootedness are vegetal notions deriv-
ing from the organic world of agricultural life. A plant’s flowers burgeon from its seed,
roots, and soil, and in so doing, present and disclose the latter’s qualities. Cognizing
knowingly is likewise a kind of organic flourishing. It is the flower of teotl’s burgeoning
and blossoming within a person’s heart. Teotl wells up within a person’s heart and
presents itself as knowing consciousness. As a result of such burgeoning teotl makes
itself known to humans (and thus known to itself). Humans become knowledgeable.
As the generative expression of teotl, human knowing constitutes one of the ways teotl
faithfully and authentically discloses itself here on earth. Knowledgeable cognizing
moves knowingly: it understands, presents, unconceals, embodies, and enacts teotl.
Unknowing (delusional, illusory, dreamlike) cognizing moves unknowingly. It is
poorly if not wholly unrooted (ahnelli) in teotl and hence inauthentic and undisclos-
ing. Teotl does not burgeon and flower within such cognizing. Unknowing cognition
constitutes a form of cognitive perversity or disease. It is one of the ways teotl unfaith-
fully and inauthentically presents—that is, disguises and masks—itself here on earth.
Humans come to understand teotl by means of the higher levels of consciousness
made possible by teyolia. Teyolia draws humans toward that which alone fills their
emptiness and gives them stability and rootedness: teotl. Teyolia resides in the heart,
and the human heart (as opposed to head) is uniquely qualified to serve as the organ
that enables humans to attain higher levels of consciousness in two ways. First, the
Nahuatl word for heart, yollotl, derives from the root ollin or ‘‘movement,’’ indicating
that the heart is fundamentally akin to teotl. Both are essentially movement. Second,
the heart is anatomically situated between head and liver, and therefore able to attain
the proper balance between the head’s reason and the liver’s passion as well as proper
balance between conception and generation, male and female, active and passive
required for receiving and expressing sacred knowledge. Unlike tonalli (the vital force
employed by shamans in their out-of-body journeys), teyolia is not separable from the
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 109

body during one’s lifetime. Consequently, in order for one to come to understand
teotl, teotl must reveal itself from within one’s heart. As we have seen, this is the case:
teotl is metaphysically immanent within human hearts and humans need only un-
cover and unconceal that which is immanent within their hearts in order to experience
teotl. They need not leave their bodies and search the cosmos outside of themselves.
Understanding teotl involves teotl’s expressing itself both to and through the higher
levels of consciousness provided by the teyolia of one’s heart. Understanding teotl
requires that one possess a yolteotl or ‘‘teotlized heart’’—that is, a heart charged with
teotl’s sacred energy. One possessing a teotlized heart is said to have ‘‘teotl in his heart’’
and to be ‘‘wise in the things of teotl.’’19 A teotlized heart reproduces teotl’s own cos-
mic balancing within itself by balancing male and female, reason and emotion, active
and passive, and so on. Receiving and expressing sacred understanding requires that
one possess teotl’s active, masculine (generative) aspect as well as its passive, feminine
(conceiving) aspect.20 As we will see in greater depth below, one best attains this bal-
ance during the activity of creative artistry. When the movement of one’s heart—that
is, one’s teyolia—resonates in harmony with the movement of teotl, one’s heart moves
well-rootedly, authentically, understandingly, and knowingly. The rhythm of one’s
heart synchronizes with the rhythm of teotl. A mystical-style union occurs as the
movement of one’s teyolia melds with that of teotl. When this occurs, one’s heart
moves knowingly. One has ‘‘teotl in his heart.’’ One’s heart enjoys ‘‘special presence.’’
Teotl not only speaks through one’s voice, one speaks with teotl’s voice. The two are
now epistemologically one.
Attaining higher levels of consciousness and deeper levels of understanding requires
the satisfaction of a variety of preconditions. It requires that one be born with the cor-
rect day sign and hence proper amount of the vital force, tonalli. It requires years of
ritual discipline, penitence, and mortification—for example, autosacrifice (i.e., self-
inflicted pain and blood loss through body piercing), fasting, sexual abstinence, and
sleep deprivation. Consuming entheogens (i.e., plants containing special presence)
allows teotl to ‘‘take possession of’’ or to ‘‘come out in’’ one’s consciousness.21 Such
ritual activities help balance and purify one’s heart and increase the quantity of one’s
vital energies. They help elevate one’s consciousness so that one might see and under-
stand teotl.22
Because teotl is essentially undifferentiated, unstructured, and unordered, Nahua
philosophy maintains that teotl and the human experience of teotl are ineffable.
Humans can only knowingly experience teotl directly—that is, in a manner unmedi-
ated, unstructured, and undefined by language, concepts, and categories (along with
their attendant divisions, classifications, and distinctions). The latter are elements of
teotl’s disguise or mask, and thus, strictly speaking, inapplicable to teotl and one’s ex-
perience of teotl. One’s experience of teotl involves an unstructured and undifferenti-
ated feeling of ‘‘oceanic unity with the universe’’ (to borrow from Fischer 1971, 901),
110 James Maffie

and the content of this feeling cannot be represented or described using literal lan-
guage. Therefore, to the degree reason and rationality necessarily employ concepts,
language, and categories, humans accordingly experience and understand teotl non-
rationally, nondiscursively, intuitively, and mystically.
Taoism helps illuminate this aspect of Nahua philosophy. Like Nahua metaphysics,
Taoism is a form of monistic pantheism; and like Nahua epistemology, Taoist episte-
mology is mystical. David Hall’s (1989) discussion of Taoist epistemology is especially
useful here. According to Hall, the Taoist notion of wu-chih or ‘‘no-knowledge’’ consists
of an intuitive grasp and appreciation of the totality of things in their unified interre-
latedness and ultimate seamless and undifferentiated oneness. Hall (1989, 108) sug-
gests ‘‘no-knowledge’’ is properly understood as ‘‘unprincipled knowing’’—that is,
‘‘the sort of knowing that does not have recourse to principles as external determining
sources of order’’ such as transcendent Platonic forms or laws of nature. R. G. H. Shiu
puts it this way: ‘‘It is called no-knowledge in that it is a state which is not that of
knowledge [in the discursive or rational sense]; it is not a piece carved out of the total
realm. It is the sharedness of the uncarved totality.’’23 ‘‘No-knowledge’’ is intuitive and
mystical. So conceived, ‘‘no-knowledge’’ differs profoundly from traditional Western
conceptions of knowledge, which insist that reality must be grasped discursively and
rationally. Discursive and rational modes of knowledge employ conceptual categories
and linguistic classifications, which, because they ‘‘carve up’’ the totality, render genu-
ine understanding and knowledge of the totality impossible. One must therefore aban-
don them and seek ultimate reality intuitively. In light of this, David Hall and Roger
Ames (1987, 1998) also contend that pre-Han Taoism (and Confucianism) do not em-
brace correspondence and coherence notions of truth (just as Nahua philosophy does
Similarly, since teotl is an uncarved totality, since it is the seamless and undifferenti-
ated unity and oneness of all things, and since language, categories, and concepts only
function to carve up things, the latter are inapplicable to teotl. Furthermore, knowl-
edge of teotl is therefore also well characterized as ‘‘no-knowledge’’ since it, too, does
not employ rational principles, categories, and distinctions. This result suggests that
any attempt to explicate Nahua thought in rational-discursive terms (such as the pres-
ent chapter) is doomed at the outset. It is precisely for this reason that Nahua sages—
like Taoist thinkers according to Hall 1978—turned to ‘‘flower and song,’’ including
song-poems, symbolism, music, dance, theatrical performance, and painting, in order
to present their understanding of teotl.
Why bother acquiring a teotlized heart? Doing so enables humans to contribute to
the preservation and continuation of the cosmos as well as to balance and purify their
lives and hence attain some measure of well-being. The earth’s surface is, after all, the
only realm wherein humans enjoy the full potential for well-being. Humans possess
very little knowledge regarding the afterlife, and moreover, possess little control over
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 111

their destiny in the afterlife. Consequently, there is little concern with the afterlife.
Nahua thought regards humans as ‘‘in and of the world,’’ and accordingly conceives
the aim of wisdom to be this-worldly rather than other-worldly. A wise life consists of
moderation—that is, of walking a middle path between the twin extremes of under-
and overindulgence.24
Nahua epistemology is characterized neither by a subject-object dualism nor by the
epistemological problematic this dualism typically engenders, namely, the knowledge
seeker’s having to span the metaphysical gulf separating her from the object of knowl-
edge. Nahua monism and pantheism generate a very different epistemological prob-
lematic, one that requires that in order for the subject to come to know the object of
knowledge, the subject must come to know an object of knowledge that resides masked
or disguised within herself. The knowledge-seeker need neither leave nor search out-
side herself to know teotl, since teotl is metaphysically immanent within her. Indeed,
humans qua subjects of knowledge and teotl qua object of knowledge are ultimately
identical. Yet teotl’s metaphysical immanence does not entail teotl’s epistemological
immanence. The fact that teotl is metaphysically immanent within humans does not
mean that teotl is not masked or disguised from humans, that humans enjoy easy epis-
temological access to teotl, or that humans are guaranteed knowledge of teotl. What,
then, is the nature of the epistemological relationship between humans, on the one
hand, and teotl qua immanent object of ‘‘no-knowledge,’’ on the other? Whereas
Cartesian-style, dualistic epistemology understands the relationship between knowl-
edge seeker and object of knowledge in terms of a veil of perception needing to
be penetrated, Nahua monistic epistemology understands the relationship between
knowledge seeker and object of knowledge in terms of a shamanic mask. Nahua episte-
mology is an ‘‘epistemology of the mask’’ rather than an ‘‘epistemology of the veil.’’
And masks in Nahua philosophy possess different properties than veils in Cartesian-
style philosophy.25
In their study of Mesoamerican masks and shamanism, Peter Markman and Roberta
Markman (1989, xx) argue that masks ‘‘simultaneously conceal and reveal the inner-
most spiritual force of life itself.’’ How are we to understand this claim, and what light
does it shed on Nahua epistemology? Consider the life-death masks in figures 3.1 and
3.2. I suggest each mask simultaneously reveals and conceals the aspect of teotl I call
dialectical polar monism. How so? Each mask conceals teotl by virtue of the fact that
humans ordinarily misperceive the mask as either-living-or-dead (but not both). How-
ever, after acquiring greater understanding, humans are able to perceive the mask cor-
rectly as both-living-and-dead-yet-simultaneously-neither-living-nor-dead. In this
way each mask thus reveals teotl. Yet there are not two, ontologically distinct masks:
either-or mask and both-yet-neither mask. There is only the one mask: that which
is first misperceived and subsequently correctly perceived. There is only the single
mask that simultaneously conceals and reveals teotl. The either-or mask does not
112 James Maffie

metaphysically conceal the both-yet-neither mask. Nor is human epistemological ac-

cess to the both-yet-neither mask mediated by the either-or mask. In sum, the both-
yet-neither mask is identical to the either-or mask. Teotl is both concealed and revealed
by these half-fleshed/half-skeletal masks. More generally, teotl is both revealed and
concealed in varying degrees by all its self-masking presentations, including earth,
sky, mountains, trees, human experience, gender, and so on.

Flower and Song

Cultivating a proper understanding of teotl also requires that humans engage in
creative-artistic activity. Indeed, only creative-artistic activity enables the human heart
to move in rhythm with teotl and so come to understand teotl. Only creative-artistic
activity carries human hearts to higher levels of consciousness because it alone excites
and balances the heart’s motion in the way needed for understanding the sacred.
Nahuas express this relationship between artistic creation and sacred understanding
by saying that humans attain higher consciousness of teotl as a consequence of ‘‘in
xochitl, in cuicatl’’ or ‘‘flower and song’’—that is, creative-artistic, symbolic, or meta-
phorical activity.26 In addition to this, humans are able to express their understanding
of teotl only through in xochitl, in cuicatl. In short, ‘‘flower and song’’ constitutes the
path both to and from understanding teotl. Nahua tlamatinime are thus perforce sage-
poets, artist-knowers, or philosopher-artists since ‘‘flower and song,’’ not discursive ar-
gumentation, is the proper medium of philosophical expression.
Why does ‘‘flower and song’’ possess this power? Nahua philosophy envisions teotl
as a consummate creator-artist, conceives the cosmos as teotl’s magisterial piece of per-
formance art, and argues that human beings must imitate teotl by engaging in creative-
artistic activity in order to understand teotl. Creative activity involves aesthetic (i.e.,
sensitive, passive, receptive, female) and artistic (i.e., active, generative, male) aspects
as well as emotional and intellectual (albeit nonrational) aspects.27 Successful creative
artistry requires the proper balancing of these complementary polarities. This is true
not only of teotl’s own self-regeneration-and-self-reconception as well as generation-
conception and regeneration-reconception of the cosmos but is also true of successful
human creative artistry. Creative-artistic activity enables the human heart to attain
well-rooted consciousness and sacred understanding by cultivating within the heart
both the sensitivity required for receiving-conceiving sacred understanding (i.e., the
aesthetic component) and the activity required for generating sacred understanding
(i.e., the artistic component). Coming to understand teotl involves simultaneously
receiving and generating the sacred within one’s heart.28
By engaging in creative activity, the human heart does more than simply imitate
teotl, however. The rhythmic motion of one’s heart harmonizes and unifies with the
motion of teotl and in so doing participates along with teotl in the process of cosmic
self-regeneration-and-self-reconception. As one’s heart becomes ‘‘teotlized’’ one experi-
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 113

ences feelings of intoxication. The following song-poems speak of the sacred origin
and intoxicating quality of ‘‘flower and song’’:
From whence come the flowers that enrapture man?
The songs that intoxicate, the lovely songs?
Only from His [teotl’s] home do they come, from the innermost part of heaven,
Only from there comes the myriad of flowers . . .
Where the nectar of the flowers is found . . .
The fragrant beauty of the flower is refined . . .
They interlace, they interweave;
Among them sings, among them warbles the quetzal bird.29

In flowers is the word

Of the One God [teotl] held secure.30

It is a true [nelli, rooted] thing, our song,

It is a true [nelli, rooted] thing, our flowers;
The well-measured song.31

The ‘‘cloud of unknowing’’ (as the anonymous, fifteenth-century English mystical text
by the same name calls it) epistemologically (not metaphysically) separating knowl-
edge seeker and object of knowledge lifts upon the dynamic union of human heart
and teotl.32 One experiences teotl directly, gaining ‘‘knowledge by presence.’’33 One
becomes directly acquainted with teotl in a manner unmediated and undifferentiated
by concepts, categories, and linguistic classifications. One’s heart experiences the
seamless, undifferentiated oneness of all things and ultimately oneness with teotl.
One knows teotl through teotl.
In line with the metaphor of burgeoning, Andrew Wiget (1980, 3) observes that
Nahuas characterize the sage-artist’s singing of a new song-poem as a process by which
the song-poem is ‘‘made to blossom.’’ Tochihuitzin Coyolchiuhqui writes:

As an herb in spring time,

So is our nature.
Our hearts give birth, make sprout,
The flowers of our flesh.
Some open their corollas,
Then become dry.34

Nahuas also liken the human heart’s creating-performing ‘‘flower and song’’ to a song-
bird’s singing. David Damrosch (1991, 102) points out that the word cuicatl in the ex-
pression ‘‘in xochitl, in cuicatl’’ actually means ‘‘birdsong.’’ The relationship between a
teotlized human heart and its ‘‘flower and song’’ is thus closely analogous to that be-
tween a songbird and its song. In creating-performing ‘‘flower and song,’’ the teotlized
heart participates in the cosmic creative artistry of teotl. Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin writes:
114 James Maffie

Your beautiful song

Is a golden woodthrush
Most beautiful, you raise it up.
You are in a field of flowers.
Among the flowery bushes you sing.
Are you perchance a precious bird of the Giver of Life [i.e., teotl]?35

In a similar spirit, Xayacamach writes:

Who am I?
As a bird I fly about,
I sing flowers;
I compose songs,
Butterflies of songs.
Let them burst forth from my heart!
Let my heart be delighted with them!36

Although ‘‘flower and song’’ serves as the necessary path to sacred understanding,
I submit sacred understanding is neither constituted nor mediated by ‘‘flower and
song.’’ ‘‘Flower and song’’ is not a lens through which the heart understands the sa-
cred, but rather, like meditation in Zen Buddhism, a ritual activity preparing the heart
for sacred understanding. It is a vehicle that delivers the heart to its destiny, not the
destiny itself. As Denise Carmody and John Carmody (1996, 13) put it:

When mystics are expressing their experiences . . . they are usually not in the midst of the experi-
ence itself, which tends to take them outside of . . . their prayer, healing, dancing, whatever they
are thinking and doing. Those activities were vehicles to carry them toward their goal. In the
mystical experience they reached their goal, or their goal moved to meet them, overcoming
the distance that separated them at the outset.

I suggest this characterization applies to Nahua tlamatinime. ‘‘Flower and song’’

accompanies but does not constitute their experience of teotl.37
Consider Taoism once again. David Hall’s characterization of Taoist epistemology
as a form of what he calls ‘‘nature mysticism’’ fits Nahua epistemology equally well.
According to Hall (1978, 80), nature mysticism focuses on the ‘‘experience of the
togetherness of all things, which we may describe as ‘con-stasy’—that is to say, ‘stand-
ing with.’ It is a sense of the presence of all things standing together in a felt unity. It is
not merely the sense of being one with Nature, though that is part of it. It is the expe-
rience of the inner fusion of each with each, the sense of compresence.’’ Nature mysti-
cism differs from what Hall calls ‘‘theistic mysticism’’ (e.g., exemplified by Christian
mystics such as Saint Teresa of Avila), which typically involves an ecstatic experience
that consists of the soul’s experiencing the sacred from without itself. Theistic mysti-
cism focuses on the soul’s leaving its proper domain to unite with the sacred. Nature
mysticism also differs from what Hall calls ‘‘soul mysticism’’ (e.g., exemplified by
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 115

some Hindu mystics), which typically involves an enstatic experience that consists of
the soul’s experiencing the sacred from within itself. Soul mysticism focuses on ‘‘the
soul itself, and the experience of unity involves an in-dwelling’’ (Hall 1978, 280). Con-
static experience, however, and especially the constatic experience that occurs during
creative-artistic activity, simultaneously incorporates both ‘‘the enstatic and ecstatic
intuitions of the Totality’’ (Hall 1978, 281). Hall interestingly suggests that the most
promising place to find the expression of Taoist mystical intuitions and insights is Chi-
nese art.
I suggest Nahua philosophy’s claims regarding the existence and nature of teotl
(e.g., dialectical polar monism and pantheism) are rooted in such artistically induced
constatic experiences, ones yielding mystical intuition into the interrelatedness of all
things as aspects of teotl as well as the ultimate oneness of all things with teotl. The
constatic or ‘‘standing-with’’ experience of teotl subsumes both the ecstatic experience
of teotl as something outside of oneself and the enstatic experience of teotl as some-
thing dwelling within oneself. The sage with a teotlized heart comes to understand
teotl by means of epistemologically self-validating intuition. This intuition blossoms
within her consciousness as teotl burgeons within and discloses itself to her heart, at
which time she sings like an intoxicated bird. The customary epistemological limita-
tions of human experience and consciousness unfold and transmute—just as a bud
unfolds and transmutes as it blossoms into a flower. And just as a blossoming flower
opens itself to its environment, so a teotlized heart opens itself to the oneness and
interrelatedness of all things. One experiences teotl both inside and outside oneself as
one experiences teotl everywhere and experiences the identity of everything with teotl.
The cloud of unknowing that ordinarily ‘‘enshrouds’’38 one’s heart is dispelled, making
possible an unmediated understanding of the teotl. In this manner humans come to
understand teotl—an understanding that cannot be attained either through sense ex-
perience or rational, conceptually based thought. Indeed, the impossibility of knowing
teotl empirically is suggested by one of the many metaphorical names given to teotl’s
supreme mythological manifestation, Ometeotl: yohualli-ehecatl (‘‘night and wind’’),
meaning ‘‘invisible (like the night) and intangible (like the wind)’’ (León-Portilla 1963,
92, 179).
As we have seen, ritual preparation for knowledge-yielding artistic activity and for
the heart’s becoming teotlized includes such practices as autosacrifice and the inges-
tion of entheogens. Nahuas avail themselves of various psychotropic substances such
as extracts from jimson weed, psilocybe mushroom, ololiuhqui (morning-glory seed),
and peyotl (peyote cactus button). According to Gordon Brotherston (1979, 262f.),
Nahua poets ritually ingest psychotropic substances in order to heighten their sensa-
tions and ‘‘expand’’ their consciousness. Fray Diego Durán (1971) reports that Nahua
priests smear their bodies with an entheogenic (psychotropic) mixture of spiders, scor-
pions, vipers, and lizards. They call such substances teotlacualli or ‘‘food of teotl.’’39 In
116 James Maffie

this manner Nahua sage-artists induce ‘‘theophanic manifestations’’ (Nicholson 1971,

441)—that is, visual and acoustic experiences of teotl that are well rooted in teotl. In
the process they experience various combinations and sequences of colors and shapes
as well as sounds, rhythms, and songs—all emanating from teotl. Teotl speaks to the
knowledge seeker in the language of poetry, song, and rhythm, namely, in xochitl, in
cuicatl or ‘‘flower and song.’’ A. Cáceres observes that psychotropic drugs often produce
auditory effects that assume the form of music, and suggests that the second word
of the metaphor for poetry, cuicatl (‘‘song’’), may indeed refer to the effects of these
substances.40 Comparable claims regarding the aural and visual apprehension of the
sacred are common in mystical and shamanic epistemologies. Witness, for example,
the sacred visions and auditions of Arjuna, Julian of Norwich, Saint Teresa of Avila,
the Wixarika of Mexico, and the Tukano of Colombia (to name only a few).41
The prevalence of such theophanic manifestations notwithstanding, I nevertheless
contend that the highest, most profound understanding of teotl neither assumes the
form of visions or auditions nor is mediated or constituted by such manifestations—
that is, by ‘‘flower and song.’’ Although teotl presents itself to humans by means of
such manifestations along the path to ultimate knowledge, the definitive, knowledge-
yielding experience of teotl consists of a constatic feeling of oneness with teotl and
everything around oneself as well as a sense of the inner fusion of each thing with
every other thing in the cosmos.

Contemporary Insights

Roland Fisher’s (1971) psychological and pharmacological cartography of ecstatic and

meditative states of mystical consciousness sheds contemporary scientific light on the
Nahuas’ aesthetic-artistic mystical epistemology. Fisher distinguishes:
1. The perception-hallucination continuum consisting of ergotropic states of increasing hyper-
arousal. This scale ranges from normal consciousness to aroused states of artistic sensi-
tivity and creativity, acute schizophrenic states, and finally ecstatic experiences of
mystical rapture. These are characterized by high levels of cognitive and physiological
2. The perception-meditation continuum consisting of trophotropic states of increasing hypo-
arousal. This scale ranges from normal consciousness to states of relaxation and tran-
quility to zazen and Yoga samadhi. These are characterized by low levels of cognitive
and physiological activity.
As one departs from normal consciousness along either continuum, one experiences
a gradual loss of voluntary control over one’s experiences as well as gradual disappear-
ance of time, space, and the separateness of subject and object (or subject-object
dichotomy)—that is, a loss of those experiences that accompany one’s nonaroused
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 117

daily routine in the physical dimension. These phenomenal changes reflect the in-
creased integration of the brain’s cortical (interpretive) and subcortical (interpreted)
structures and activities. At the highest levels of both hyperarousal and hypoarousal,
one experiences a feeling of ‘‘oceanic unity with the universe’’ (Fisher 1971, 901)
including a complete loss of subject-object dichotomy. This experience cannot
be meaningfully expressed using the dualistic, ‘‘rational, Aristotelian . . . two-valued
(either-or, true-false) logic [and language]’’ (Fisher 1971, 902; brackets mine) of daily
practical life since these presuppose the validity of the subject-object dichotomy.
One is therefore forced to invent a new symbolic, metaphorical, or artistic logic and
language to express the meaning of the experience of oceanic unity—a logic and lan-
guage, Fisher adds, that may subsequently become ritualized. Fisher claims both the
rapture and ecstasy of intense ergotrophic arousal and the tranquillity of intense hypo-
arousal are mystical states.
I suggest we interpret Nahua epistemology as holding that artistic activity helps
humans reach the point at which they experience a ‘‘breakthrough’’ (as Fisher puts it)
to ecstasy. The acoustic and visual hallucinations as well as feelings of ‘‘intoxication’’
that accompany ‘‘flower and song’’ fall squarely on Fisher’s ergotropic continuum. I
also suggest that on reaching the heights of ergotropic arousal, Nahua tlamatinime ex-
perience an intoxicating ‘‘oceanic unity’’ that yields intuitive insight into and direct
acquaintance with sacred reality: ‘‘no-knowledge’’ of teotl. This is precisely the con-
static experience of oneness we examined above: the felt experience of the interfusion,
interconnectedness, and seamless unity of all things as well as ultimate oneness of all
things. As a result of this feeling-insight, Nahua tlamatinime invent a special, nondual-
istic language, namely, ‘‘flower and song’’ broadly construed—in order to present, ex-
press, and communicate their experience.42


Nahua ontology suggests both a holism according to which all parts of the cosmos are
mutually interrelated and a monism according to which the cosmos and all its parts ul-
timately consist of a single, sacred force or energy. This energy is immanent within all
individual things yet also transcendent of all individual things. Consciousness and
matter not only consist of this single energy; they are manifestations and twin aspects
of this energy. As such, they are not two essentially different kinds of substances radi-
cally opposed to one another, mutually exclusive of one another, or only contingently
related to one another. The either-or appearance of consciousness and matter is an
illusion engendered by the fact that consciousness and matter are two ways by which
this single energy commonly presents itself to human experience. Humans liberate
themselves from this misperception and misunderstanding by shedding ordinary con-
sciousness and discerning the nature of this single, universal energy as simultaneously
118 James Maffie

both-consciousness-and-matter-yet-neither-consciousness-nor-matter. Wisdom in-

volves liberation from this misperception and misconception—along with the other
illusions of ‘‘enshrouded’’ consciousness discussed here—and in so doing provides
humans with the practical ken needed for maintaining their balance on the twisting,
jagged path of life. Wisdom enables humans to identify and avoid activities that
promote imbalance-and-impurity as well as to identify and pursue those that promote
balance-and-purity in humans and the cosmos.


This chapter has benefited from conversations with James Boyd, Gordon Brotherston, Julie
Greene, the late David Hall, Jane Kneller, Grant Lee, Michael Losonsky, Urbano Francisco Marti-
nez, Patrick McKee, Johanna Sanchez, Alan Sandstrom, Ben-Ami Scharfstein, John Sullivan, and
Helmut Wautischer. Special thanks go to Willard Gingerich.

1. A Nahuatl proverb recorded in the sixteenth century states, ‘‘It is slippery, it is slick on the
earth,’’ Tlaalahui, tlapetzcahui in tlalticpac (Sahagún 1953–1982, vol. VI, p. 228; trans. Burkhart
1989). Nahuas believed the earth to be a very dangerous place morally and physically speaking
and believed wisdom that enabled humans to keep their balance on its slippery surface.
The natives of the High Central Plateau of what is now Mexico spoke the Nahuatl language, an
Uto-Aztecan tongue related to languages of the native inhabitants of western and southwestern
United States. The Nahuatl-speaking peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico included, among others, the
Mexicas (Aztecs), Acolhuans, Texcocans, Tlacopans, Culhuans, Chalcans, Tepanecs, and Tlaxcal-
tecs. Due to their common inheritance and language, scholars typically refer to them as Nahuas,
and to their culture, as Nahuatl culture. Nahuatl culture flourished for several centuries prior to
1521, the date standardly assigned to Cortez’s conquest of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.
Our sources for studying pre-Hispanic Nahua philosophy include precontact and early postcon-
tact native pictorial manuscripts or ‘‘codices’’ (e.g., the Codex Borbonicus and Codex Mendoza);
reports by conquerors (e.g., Diaz del Costillo); and ethnography-style chronicles composed by
the first missionary friars entering Mexico after the Conquest. Friars Sahagún, Olmos, Motolinı́a,
Durán, and Mendieta sought knowledge of Nahua culture and questioned survivors of the Con-
quest about their culture. Friar Sahagún assembled hundreds of folios containing enormous
amounts of information, which serve as the basis for his Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva
España. The Cantares mexicanos and Romances de los Señores de la Nueva España consist of transcrip-
tions of native song-poems compiled by natives under Spanish supervision during the last part
of the sixteenth century. Recent ethnographies of contemporary Nahuatl-speaking peoples in
Mexico also prove useful (e.g., Sandstrom 1991; Knab 1995). For discussion of sources, see León-
Portilla 1963, 1966, 1969, 1992, and Ortiz de Montellano 1990.

2. For further discussion, see Klor de Alva 1979; Monaghan 2000; Nicholson 1971; Read 1998;
Boone 1994. This discussion is indebted to Burkhart 1989; Carrasco 1990; J. L. M. Furst 1978;
León-Portilla 1963, 1966, 1992; López Austin 1988, 1997.

3. For discussions of duality in Mesoamerican art, see Miller and Taube 1993; Pasztory 1983.
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 119

4. Young and Ames 1977, 5; chapter references are to the Tao Te Ching.

5. My understanding of Taoism is indebted to Ames 1989; Hall 1989; Hall and Ames 1987, 1988;
Young and Ames 1977. For discussion of Nahua dualism, see Caso 1958; Burkhart 1989; Davies
1990; López Austin 1988, 1997; Maffie 2002a; Markman and Markman 1989; Miller and Taube
1993; Ortiz de Montellano 1990; Pasztory 1983; B. Tedlock 1982; D. Tedlock 1983. Davies 1990
and Ortiz de Montellano 1990 also note parallels between what I call ‘‘dialectical polar monism’’
and Taoism’s notion of yin and yang. Young and Ames use the phrase ‘‘the principle of antitheti-
cal rotation’’ for the Taoist principle stating that being and nonbeing, life and death, male and
female, and so on are mutually arising and interdependent.

6. I adopt the above definition of pantheism from Levine 1994. As I understand it, Nahua meta-
physics neatly fits the definitions of pantheism advanced by scholarly studies such as Levine 1994
and Sprigge 1997. Interpreting Nahua metaphysics pantheistically is supported, too, by Sandstrom
1991, Hunt 1977, and Irene Nicholson 1959, and also by the fact that sixteenth-century Nahua
thought remains close to its shamanic roots and that native Mesoamerican shamanism is panthe-
istic (e.g., see Florescano 1994; Markman and Markman 1989; Ortiz de Montellano 1990; Meyer-
hoff 1976a, 1976b). For an opposing view, see León-Portilla (1963, 95–99).

7. For helpful discussions of shamanism and the role of masks in Mesoamerican thought, see P. T.
Furst 1976b; Markman and Markman 1989; Ortiz de Montellano 1990.

8. Cantares mexicanos fol. 10 r., trans. León-Portilla (1992, 282). Aquiauhtzin (c.1430–c.1500)
hailed from the hamlet of Ayapanco in the region of Chalco-Amaquemecan. The expression
‘‘house of paintings’’ refers both to the building in which the Aztecs stored their painted codices
and to earthly existence.

9. Cantares mexicanos fol. 11 v., translated by León-Portilla (1992, 228). Xayacamach (second half
of the fifteenth century) hailed from and governed the town of Tizatlan, in Tlaxcala.

10. Romances de los señores de Nueva España, fol. 35 r., translated by León-Portilla (1992, p. 83).
Nezahualcoyotl (1402–1472) was not only a renowned poet-philosopher but also the ruler of
the city-state of Tezcoco. In a similar spirit, Ayocuan Cuetzpaltzin writes, ‘‘Earth is the region
of the fleeting moment’’ (Cantares mexicanos fol. 10 r., trans. León-Portilla (1992, 221)). See also
Sahagún 1953–1982, bk. III, appendix, p. 41.

11. Brackets mine; Cantares mexicanos, fol. 14 v., translated by León-Portilla (1992, 153). Tochi-
huitzin Coyolchiuhqui (end of the fourteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century) hailed from
Teotlatzinco. See Sahagún 1953–1982, bk. III, appendix, p. 41, for a similar view.

12. The Mayan text, Popol Vuh (D. Tedlock 1983, 166–167), propounds an epistemological con-
ception of illusion strikingly similar to the Nahuas’ conception. It says humans ‘‘were blinded
[by the gods] as the face of a mirror is breathed upon’’ (p. 167). For discussion of Samkara, see
Deutsche 1969; for, Dogen, see Kasulis 1980.

13. According to Deutsche 1969, similar paradoxes arise within Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta. My
interpretation of Nahua metaphysics contradicts the received view among scholars (e.g., León-
Portilla 1963; Bierhorst 1985; Clendinnen 1991; Burkhart 1989), which places Nahua metaphysics
120 James Maffie

squarely within the orbit of Indo-European metaphysics and epistemology. For discussion of in-
digenous American metaphysics and epistemology, see Deloria, Foehner, and Scinta 1999; Meyer-
hoff 1976a, 1976b; Ortiz de Montellano 1990; Popol Vuh 1985; Witherspoon 1977. For discussion
of pre-Han East Asian metaphysics and epistemology, see Hall 1989; Hall and Ames 1987, 1988.

14. For further discussion see Gingerich 1988, 521–525; Burkhart 1989, chaps. 4, 5; León-Portilla

15. Carrasco 1990, 69.

16. This discussion is indebted to López Austin 1988; J. L. M. Furst 1995; Carrasco 1990; Knab
1995; Ortiz de Montellano 1990; Sandstrom 1991.

17. See Karttunen 1983; Gingerich 1987; León-Portilla 1963.

18. For further discussion, see Maffie 2002b.

19. Sahagún 1953–1982, III, 67; quoted in León-Portilla 1963, 143. See also López Austin 1988, I,
258f., II, 245, 298, and appendix 5.

20. See Meyerhoff 1976a, 1976b, for related discussion concerning shamanism.

21. See Ortiz de Montellano 1990, 68–70, and P. T. Furst 1976a, 1976b.

22. Very few individuals ever satisfied these conditions. See León-Portilla 1992; López Austin
1988; Ortiz de Montellano 1990.

23. Quoted in Hall 1978, 279 (brackets mine).

24. For further discussion, see Burkhart 1989; Gingerich 1988; Klor de Alva 1993; León-Portilla

25. Levine (1994, 96, 102) demonstrates that although pantheists are committed to the meta-
physical immanence of the sacred, they are not therefore committed to epistemological imma-
nence of the sacred in the sense that the sacred is knowable either easily or even in principle.
He cites Spinoza as a pantheist who rejects the epistemological immanence of the sacred. León-
Portilla (1963) apparently believes metaphysical immanence logically entails epistemological
immanence, and on that basis argues that Nahua metaphysics cannot be pantheistic since Nahuas
regard the sacred as epistemologically transcendent. I thus differ from León-Portilla on this matter.

26. ‘‘Flower and song’’ functions in some contexts as a metaphor for song-poems specifically and
in other contexts for artistic activity generally. See León-Portilla 1963, 1966, 1969, 1992; Brother-
ston 1979; Gingerich 1987; D. Tedlock 1983.

27. I use aesthetic in the original sense of the Greek word aisthetikos (‘‘perceive’’), to denote per-
ception, reception, or sensitivity, and thus to distinguish the aesthetic from the artistic, which I
construe as active.

28. See Miller and Taube 1993 and Ortiz de Montellano 1990 for discussion of knowledge as
Consciousness and Reality in Nahua Thought 121

29. Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 34 r., trans. León-Portilla (1963, 77) (brackets mine).

30. Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 11, trans. Gingerich (1987, 103) (brackets mine).

31. Romances, fol. 41, trans. Gingerich (1987, 103) (brackets mine).

32. The Cloud of Unknowing (1924). Illusion as a ‘‘cloud of unknowing’’ is yet another way of
expressing an epistemological conception of illusion.

33. I borrow this phrase from Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi’s (1992) exposition of Islamic epistemology and
mysticism. Nahua epistemology fits the prevailing definition of mysticism adopted by scholars of
mysticism. Weeks (1993, 6) defines mysticism as ‘‘knowledge of the divine from the divine . . . one
knows god through god, and in so doing, the knowing being communes with, or indeed may be
united with, the divine object of knowledge.’’ Mann (1995, 515) defines mysticism as ‘‘the doc-
trine or discipline maintaining that one can gain knowledge of reality that is not accessible to
sense perception or to rational, conceptual thought.’’ In their exhaustive study of Western and
Eastern mysticism, Carmody and Carmody (1996, 10) propose the following ‘‘working description
of mysticism’’: the ‘‘direct experience of ultimate reality.’’ See also Gimello 1978; Meyerhoff
1976a, 1976b.

34. Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 14 v., trans. León-Portilla (1992, 153).

35. Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 11 v., trans. León-Portilla (1992, 220) (brackets mine).

36. Cantares Mexicanos, fol. 11 v., trans. León-Portilla (1963, 181).

37. See also Nicholson 1971, 442. For an opposing view, see Gingerich 1987.

38. Trans. León-Portilla 1963, 175; see also López Austin 1988, p. II, 246. The foolish, dull-witted
person was said to possess an ‘‘enshrouded heart.’’

39. For further discussion of the sacred use of entheogenic (psychotropic) substances in Nahua
culture, see P. T. Furst 1976a; Nicholson 1971; Ortiz de Montellano 1990.

40. Cáceres 1984, 208, as reported in Ortiz de Montellano 1990, 70.

41. See Carmody and Carmody 1996; Forman 1990; P. T. Furst 1976a; Ortiz de Montellano 1990;
Meyerhoff 1976a, 1976b; Reichel-Dolmatoff 1978; Schaefer 2002.

42. Did Nahua tlamatinime also experience trophotropic states of mystical knowledge acquisition?
Fisher’s analysis hints at the possibility. Fisher claims his research demonstrates the existence of a
phenomenon he calls the ‘‘trophotropic rebound.’’ That is, despite the mutual exclusivity of ergo-
tropic and trophotropic systems, individuals experiencing intense ergotropic hyperarousal experi-
ence a ‘‘rebound’’ or reversal into intense trophotropic hypoarousal. Individuals experiencing a
state of heightened ecstasy typically experience a rebound or reversal into a state of tranquil
samadhi. Fisher’s finding thus suggests the possibility that after experiencing artistically induced
states of heightened ergotropic excitation, Nahua artist-sages underwent a ‘‘trophotropic re-
bound’’ and experienced heightened states of hypoarousal such as zazen or samadhi. After the
song-poems had been composed and performed, the conch and flute playing, drumming, and
dancing had ceased, the costumes shed, and the copal fumes wafted into the night air, Nahua
122 James Maffie

artist-sages ‘‘rebounded’’ into a state of trophotropic tranquility during which they apprehended
sacred truth. Unfortunately, the primary sources contain no evidence supporting this hypothesis.


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4 Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul
in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Armand J. Labbé


This chapter gives interpretive context and meaning to a heretofore little deciphered body of
pre-Columbian art, by viewing this art against a large body of ethnographic data relevant to
indigenous concepts of soul and neotropical shamanism. Juxtaposition of the ethnographic
present against the pre-Columbian past demonstrates an ideological and thematic continuity
between the two. In this study I use indigenous concepts of soul in comparison with artifacts to
identify and interpret soul-related themes as they are reflected in pre-Columbian art. These
ethnographic references to indigenous concepts of soul in turn are compared cross-culturally
and, where appropriate, resynthesized into a more cohesive, interpretive model.
Such a model identifies and differentiates four core themes pertaining to shamanism and
indigenous concepts of soul: (1) shamanic empowerment, (2) shape-shifting or the
transformation of soul, (3) shamanic soul flight, and (4) soul loss and capture. The representation
of these themes in the pre-Columbian art of the Americas may thus be examined in the context
of their relevant iconography.
Many indigenous cultures worldwide differentiate two or more souls in the formation of a
human being; however, the ethnographies are not always careful to distinguish between these
souls. This chapter defines the characteristics of each soul; distinguishes which soul is involved
with a particular shamanic endeavor; and identifies which soul is referenced in the art.


Artistic representations of shamanic themes found in the pre-Hispanic art of the

Americas—such as trance, shape-shifting, and soul flight—contain valuable informa-
tion about indigenous concepts of soul and subtle realities. This information is
accessed by exploring the meaning of iconography used to decorate a large corpus of
funerary art, produced in Peru, Colombia, Panama, and Mesoamerica. These artifacts
demonstrate that the essential iconography of shamanic themes was shared cross-
culturally and persisted through time.
128 Armand J. Labbé

Pre-Columbian art illustrates the ethnohistoric and ethnographic databases about

‘‘soul flight’’ and ‘‘shape-shifting of the soul,’’ thus expanding our understanding of
both human consciousness and human physiology. Such shamanic themes occur else-
where worldwide and evince similar correspondences with relevant ethnographic and
cultural realities. A clear understanding of the nature of New World shamanism also
offers us better insight into the nature of subtle states of consciousness and gives us a
better vantage point from which to assess the relationship of New World shamanism
to shamanic traditions found in other parts of the world.

Indigenous Concepts of Soul

Information on New World religions has been collected since the earliest period of Eu-
ropean contact, yet only disjunctive fragments of this corpus of data pertain to indige-
nous concepts of soul. This fact is particularly underscored by the pioneering work
of anthropologist Åke Hultkrantz (1953, 1997). His work clearly demonstrated the
problems encountered in relying on informants whose personal knowledge of these
traditions is questionable, or in relying on field researchers who were ill-prepared to
understand the nature of the responses gathered from these informants. His study
made it clear that the English word soul is inadequate for translating indigenous con-
cepts of soul, which often referred to multiple animating entities. Most commonly, he
found references to the presence of two souls in the individual human being: ‘‘In all of
North America except the southwest the belief recurs in one form or another that man
is equipped with two kinds of soul, one or more bodily souls that grant life, movement,
and consciousness to the body, and one dream or free soul identical to man himself as
he is manifested outside of his body in various psychic twilight zones’’ (Hultkrantz
1980, 131). The two-soul theory is of great antiquity and is found widely dispersed in
cultures around the globe. It is noted in Egyptian writings, most notably the so-called
books of the dead, such as the Egyptian Papyrus of Ani (1500–1350 B.C.) and the Vedic
Upanisads of India (beginning from the eighth century B.C.). It is the most common
model found among indigenous groups in the Americas from Mexico all the way to
Peru. Notwithstanding the variety of cultural traditions in which the two-soul theory
appears, careful analysis yields a remarkable cross-cultural ethnographic consistency
with respect to descriptions of the structure, substance, function, and attributes of
each of the souls or animating entities.

Synopsis of the Two-Soul Theory: The Bipartite Nature of the Human Spirit

The two-soul theory postulates the existence of two distinct animistic entities in the
makeup of the individual human being. All of the traditions are in agreement that
the first and lower of the two animistic entities comprises a form and a constituent
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 129

energy that fuels the form. In Chinese this energy is called chi (generally translated as
‘‘vital force’’), in Sanskrit it is called prana (generally translated as ‘‘life breath’’ or ‘‘life
principle’’), among the Yoruba of Nigeria it is called emi (generally translated as ‘‘ani-
mating energy’’), while in much of Polynesia it is referred to as mana (generally trans-
lated as ‘‘sacred power’’ or ‘‘sacred energy’’). Among the Aztecs this energy was called
tonalli (generally untranslated, but signifying ‘‘vital force’’).
The Chinese tradition of chi considers the meridians or channels through which the
chi flows, its corresponding acupuncture points, as well as the storage and transforma-
tional centers for chi (Veith 1984). This notion of chi continues in Taoist traditions
and in Chi Kung, and arguably represents the basic physiological understanding of
the lower animistic entity or ‘‘vital force soul.’’ Generally, the Chinese, Tibetan, and
Indian traditions provide the most in-depth and comprehensive knowledge of the
The Indian tradition, as exemplified in the Brhadāranyaka Upanisad, names the
˙ ˙ ˙
channels or meridians through which the vital force flows hita: ‘‘In him, verily, are
those channels called hita, which are as fine as a hair divided a thousandfold and filled
with white, blue, yellow, green (fluids).’’ According to Radhakrishnan (1996, 261–262),
‘‘The subtle body is said to be in these channels.’’ The concept of vital force flowing
through an animate vehicle or entity is widespread. Surprisingly, the Igbo of Nigeria
also use the word chi for the vital force. Chi is a central concept of Igbo thought and
is defined as the essence that animates life (Cole and Amiakor 1984, 15). Although a
distinction is made between the vital force and the animistic entity it animates and
through which it flows, most ethnographic traditions in which this duality is found
use the same term in reference to each component. For example, the term chi is also
applied by the Igbo to what they conceive to be the animate self (Henderson 1972,
Shamanic traditions are in agreement that an entity exists that animates the physical
body and serves as the body’s shield against many forms of invasive illness. It is com-
monly held that part of this entity can be projected or extended outside and beyond
the body, but that a complete projection outside the physical body without tangible
connection will result in the body’s demise. The lower animistic entity can be harmed
and its energy can be drained. This is referenced in the literature as ‘‘soul loss’’ or ‘‘soul
While in some traditions the lower animistic entity is said to be the repository of
memory, generally it is thought to have little independent will. The willful and per-
sonal higher animistic entity is usually described as variable in size, and capable of
expanding itself or reducing itself to very small proportions, even down to a point
of light. We find such a description in the Svetasvatara Upanisad: ‘‘Of the size of a
thumb, but brilliant, like the sun, the jiva possesses both volition and egoism. . . .
Know the embodied soul to be a part of the hundred part of the point of a hair divided
130 Armand J. Labbé

a hundred times; and yet it is infinite’’ (Nikhilananda 1963, 137–138). The higher ani-
mistic entity is said to dwell within the physical form in a tiny space within the space
enveloped by the physical heart. During normal consciousness it is believed to anchor
itself in the ‘‘head’’: more specifically, as the intellect in the ‘‘seat of consciousness.’’
There is widespread agreement in identifying the heart as the seat of the higher animis-
tic entity. López Austin (1988, 231), basing his studies on a careful reading of the Span-
ish chronicles and early colonial-period documents, such as the Florentine Codex,
identifies the heart as the seat of the teyolia: the Mexica term for the higher animistic
entity. Reichel-Dolmatoff (1971, 64) reports that among the Desana, a Tukanoan-
speaking group of the Colombian Northwest Amazon, ‘‘The seat of the soul (simpora)
is the heart.’’
Egyptologists, however, have demurred from making a connection between the
heart and the Egyptian ba, one of the animistic entities constituting the human being.
They view the heart as a separate entity. As Goelet (1998, 151) notes, ‘‘The heart was
considered to be the seat of the emotions and the intellect. In short the heart was the
Egyptian equivalent of the mind.’’ Wilkinson (1992, 77) agrees, positing that ‘‘in
the view of the ancient Egyptians the heart was the seat of thought and emotion and
even of life itself. As the heart was regarded as the center of life, it was said of the de-
ceased that his heart had ‘departed,’ and the heart was often equated with a person’s
very being.’’ It is curious that both Egyptologists refer to the heart as the seat of higher
animistic functions, but then equate it with life and being. There is no evidence in the
Egyptian texts that the physical heart itself was endowed with individuality and move-
ment after death. When it is pictorially represented in the various New Kingdom texts,
the heart is simply placed in the scales of judgment to be weighed in the balance
against Ma’at, the Egyptian personification of truth and justice. It is noteworthy in
this respect that in the passages referring to the ‘‘weighing of the heart,’’ the ba is
present and carefully watches the heart being weighed in the scale. If, as it seems, the
heart itself was only the seat of higher animistic functions, then what was the animis-
tic entity that performed those functions? The ba is undoubtedly the most reasonable
candidate. Wilkinson notes concerning the ba that it was ‘‘a spiritual aspect of the
human being which survived . . . at death, and which was imbued with the fullness of
a person’s individuality’’ (p. 99). These are the very characteristics also associated with
the heart. I propose that the heart was but the seat of the ba and that, while the indi-
vidual was still alive, the two were not distinguished by the Egyptian scribes. Once
death had taken place, however, the ba was released from its seat and distinguished
by its own hieroglyph.
The Upanisadic traditions of India make even clearer and more definitive references
to the heart as the seat of the higher self. The Katha Upanisad states that ‘‘the Self,
smaller than small, greater than great, is hidden in the heart of that creature’’ (Müller
1962, p. 11). In the Brhadāranyaka Upanisad it is noted that
˙ ˙ ˙
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 131

the point of his heart becomes lighted up, and by that light the self departs, either through the
eye, or through the skull, or through other places of the body. And when he thus departs, life
(the chief prâna) departs after him, and when life thus departs, all the other vital spirits (prânas)
depart after it. . . . That person, under the form of mind (manas), being light indeed, is within the
heart, small like a grain of rice or barley. (Müller 1962, 174–175 and 192)

The association of the higher animistic entity with light is noteworthy, for it is an as-
sociation found in some New World cultures as well. The Desana state that ‘‘the soul is
a luminous element that not only ‘exists under the reflection of the Sun’ but possesses
its own luminosity that the Sun gave it at the moment of birth’’ (Reichel-Dolmatoff
1971, 64). The Upanisadic seers of India, the Aztec Codices, and other sources agree
that the seat of the higher animistic entity lies within the heart. This and related pos-
tulates are not stated as arbitrary theorizing or simplistic religious beliefs; instead, they
reflect careful observations made by practiced adepts. From the indigenous viewpoint,
these concepts relate to shared realities, experienced by adepts of the respective com-
munities, and represent concepts rooted in corresponding structures of reality.

Pre-Columbian Art as a Viable Ethnographic Resource

The term pre-Columbian is both chronological and cultural. It refers to the indigenous
cultures of the Americas, before they were affected by contact with Europeans. In many
cases such contact did not occur until long after 1492.
Many pre-Columbian artworks portray shamans or shamanic themes. This is partic-
ularly notable in the Olmec culture of Mexico, in the Chavin and coastal cultures of
Peru, and in Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador, where shamanic artwork testi-
fies to the attributes and skills of shamanic practice. Systematic study of these artifacts,
along with corresponding ethnographic literature, allows for a detailed assessment of
shamanic practice that can be correlated with iconographic elements observed in the
art. A precise mapping of culturally reinforced themes demonstrates their perpetuity
through time.
Certain core shamanic themes are relevant for an understanding of indigenous con-
cepts of soul: (1) shamanic empowerment; (2) ‘‘soul flight,’’ or the perceived shamanic
ability to leave one’s physical form and travel about in one’s ‘‘soul body’’; (3) ‘‘shape-
shifting,’’ or the belief that shamans can alter the size, shape, and form of their souls or
animistic entities; and (4) ‘‘soul capture,’’ the stated ability to harm, capture, or even
absorb and incorporate the lower soul or animistic entity of another. Each of these
themes is graphically and repeatedly represented in pre-Columbian art.

Shamanic Empowerment: Imaging the Empowered Soul

The indigenous views on shamanic powers are internally consistent and form part
of an integrated worldview. Neotropical shamans do not walk about during normal
132 Armand J. Labbé

consciousness ready to undertake shamanic tasks such as healing, altering the weather,
‘‘soul travel,’’ and other paranormal abilities ascribed to shamans. They must first
activate these powers within themselves, and the ethnographic literature is clear in
identifying the various souls as the vehicles of expression for shamanic powers and
endeavors. This activation entails a preparatory phase that may include fasting, mental
reflection and contemplation, the singing of power songs, the yogic posturing of the
physical body, or the ingestion of various psychomimetic substances.
A large number of mind-altering plants are used to activate shamanic powers. There
are depictions of the mescaline-bearing San Pedro cactus in the Moche (100–700 A.D.)
art of Peru, the peyote cactus in the art of the Shaft Tomb Cultures (200 B.C.–400 A.D.)
of West Mexico, and representations of shamans smoking cigars in a number of pre-
Hispanic art traditions of Costa Rica as well as Mexico.
Psychotropic plants—that is, ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi), yopo (Anadenanthera
peregrina), virola (Virola calopylla, as well as Virola calophylloida), and datura
(Datura aurea, Datura candida, Datura dolichocarpa, Datura sanguinea, and Datura
suaveolens)—are believed by indigenous practitioners to be especially effective in
facilitating contact between the shaman and the spirit of the plant. Early Spanish
observers were quick to attribute such communication to the work of the devil. Later
Western ethnographers were just as quick to characterize the native experience as a
product of drug-induced hallucination. Under the best of circumstances, researchers
can only prove or disprove the native claim from their own standpoint, and that,
only if they are able to replicate all of the cultural and contextual variables compris-
ing the experience. The purpose here is not to demonstrate the proof or validity of
the native interpretation of the experience, but faithfully to portray the indigenous
A number of different postures and physical techniques evolved that were used as
aids in achieving certain subtle states of consciousness, much in the same manner
that yogic postures are believed to assist the practitioner in achieving subtle states of
consciousness. Many yogic postures in India are likely rooted in an earlier, indigenous
shamanism on the subcontinent.
A posture used by Tukanoan shamans in the northwest Amazon of Colombia to in-
duce trance consists of a seated position in which the knees are grasped and engulfed
by the arms. A dynamic tension is created by attempting to extend the legs outward,
while the arms hold the legs in bent position. The knees are pulled inward, but never
to the point of touching the chest. The position is assumed while vision is focused on a
point of external light, a torch for example. The rate of respiration is altered by this
posture as pressure is brought to bear on the thorax (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1988, 44). A
relatively large number of portrayals in gold in Muisca style from the Eastern Cordillera
region of Colombia document the antiquity and continuity of this posture into the
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 133

Tukanoan shamans do not induce trance for the sake of trance, but merely to free
themselves for other endeavors of a conscious, willfully directed nature. The relevance
of trance to achieving certain altered states of consciousness is directly related to the
belief that shamans must disengage their higher soul from the sensory distractions
generated by their lower soul, if they are to access subtle states of consciousness and
enable shamanic powers such as soul flight or shape-shifting.
Contrary to the suggestions that shamanic endeavors are byproducts of hallucina-
tion or worse, of a schizophrenic mind, neotropical shamans undergo specific, directed
training. The ethnographic literature is clear in its assertion that practitioners, as well
as other members of their society, accept the shamanic powers and endeavors as rooted
in reality. This is not to deny that hallucinations were not at times also a part of the
experience of taking psychomimetic substances. Hallucinatory visions are often delib-
erately induced and interpreted by neotropical shamans. This is particularly true with
respect to the ingestion of yopo and virola, both widely used in the Colombian north-
west Amazon (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, 3–24).
Although researchers distinguish voluntary trance states, such as those entered into
by shamans, from involuntary trance states, such as are experienced by epileptics,
there is a need to refine our understanding of trance further. Looked at from the per-
spective of the indigenous two-soul model, trance can entail displacing the higher ani-
mistic entity by an agent other than one’s self. This would be what occurs in purported
cases of spirit possession. In the case of involuntary possession, the invasive spirit
would be seen as willfully displacing the higher animistic entity. In the case of volun-
tary possession, the individual makes a conscious decision to vacate the seat of con-
sciousness and make it available to an invited spirit. This is little different from a
hypnotic state in which the willful conscious individual is supplanted by the hypno-
tist, who gives directives to what appears to be a somnambulistic, will-less, entity.
From this perspective, hypnosis is a psychophysical state in which the higher animistic
entity, or soul, has been displaced from its seat of consciousness in the brain by the
The second form of trance involves consciously disengaging the higher animistic
entity from the lower animistic entity, thereby breaking the fixation of the former on
normal sensory stimulation, while maintaining conscious awareness. The anchoring of
the lower animistic entity’s attention on a repetitive, fixed phenomenon, like a flame,
is believed to facilitate this second kind of trance state. The process of maintaining
willful consciousness, while inducing trance in the lower animistic entity, is purport-
edly accompanied by great tension in the physical body (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, 44).
This is part of the rationale behind the clenched-teeth motif in pre-Columbian art.
Trance states brought about by mind-altering plants or shamanic techniques are also
indicated by making the eyes of the figure concentric and glazed looking, or the eyes
are portrayed in a way that imparts a sense of introspection to the figure. For example,
134 Armand J. Labbé

Figure 4.1
The figure is seated cross-legged. The expression on the face, in combination with the eyes,
imparts a sense of inner contemplation or trance. The status of the figure is indicated by the large
earspools; the higher the rank, the larger the earspools. The designs on items of clothing were
sometimes indicative of group identity or affiliation. The identification of the object placed be-
tween the individual’s legs is unclear (polychrome painted pottery, Moche culture, North Coast
Peru, c. 100–700. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection 88.4.14).

in figures 4.1 and 4.2, both of which are from the Moche culture (c. 100–700 A.D.)
of the North Coast of Peru, the persons are portrayed seated with eyes fixed, staring

Iconographic Emblems of Shamanic Empowerment

Pre-Columbian artists used many conventions to indicate that a shaman was empow-
ered. In figure 4.3, for example, the winged shaman is portrayed in ecstatic flight,
borne aloft by his spirit ally, imaged as a gigantic bird with human arms. Both the
fact that he is winged, as well as the fact that he is accompanied by a spirit ally, inform
us that he is empowered. More specific iconographic references to shamanic empower-
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 135

Figure 4.2
The figure is in seated posture with hands placed on the knees. The eyes are fixed and stare vacu-
ously. Figures such as this likely depict shamans in self-induced trance. Entering trance states was
often a state preparatory to undertaking a shamanic endeavor such as prognostication, diagnosis
of illness, or even soul flight. The white cape and headgear are likely references to the individual’s
role and function within Moche society. Although both figures 4.1 and 4.2 are in seated posture,
the legs are positioned differently. The positioning of the hands and feet, as well as the posture
assumed by the individual, is significant in determining the state of consciousness or condition
of mind the individual is endeavoring to access (polychrome painted pottery, Moche culture,
North Coast Peru, c. 100–700. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection 91.26.532).

ment are sometimes common to particular regions of pre-Columbian America. For in-
stance, horns emanating from the forehead of human figures also served as emblems of
shamanic empowerment in West Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica (see Furst
1965, 29–80; Von Winning 1974, 32): ‘‘Horns are one of the most widespread—indeed
universal—insignia of supernatural, priestly, and shamanic power, so much, from the
Paleolithic to the ethnographic present, and in so many places, that one hardly needs
to make a case that it had the same meaning in pre-Columbian art and symbolism’’
(Furst 1998, 180).
Figures 4.4 to 4.9 are representative of this genre. Although Graham (1998, 191–203)
has argued that the protrusions are not really horns, but seashells, or, more specifically,
conch shells strapped to the figure’s head as an emblem of status, his arguments are
not compelling and are easily refuted by examining the empirical evidence. Figures
4.4 and 4.6a–b to 4.9 illustrate the independent nature of the horn in the Mexican
136 Armand J. Labbé

Figure 4.3
The composition comprises a winged shaman in
soul or ecstatic flight borne aloft on the back of a
large spirit bird. That this is no ordinary bird is
indicated by the enormous size of the bird and the
fact that, instead of legs, the bird has arms that, in
the portrayal, are swept back as if to add stability to
the shaman figure. The human figure, character-
ized by a pair of wings, clutches the neck of the
bird spirit. Compositions showing a shaman borne
aloft in flight by a spirit animal are seen in Amerin-
dian cultural art from the Northwest Coast to Peru
(blackware pottery, Chimu culture, North Coast
Peru, c. 900–1500. Private Collection, Los Angeles).

portrayals. Explanations such as Graham’s ignore the fact that the protrusions are not
depicted as spiral in form, as are conch shells, and ignore those figures in which the
protrusion is present, but the straps are not. Moreover, in many cases where the straps

Figure 4.4
The figure is in seated position and holds a rattle in each
hand. It is clear from the manner in which the strap
wraps around the horn that it plays no role in holding
the horn to the head. It is merely encircling a horn that
is emanating from the figure’s head. Erect or tumescent
phalli are commonly depicted in association with sha-
man figures to denote empowerment or to call attention
to the shaman’s role in mediating fertility. The rattles,
horns, and ithyphallic condition of the figure identify
the figure as a shaman engaged in ritual. There are essen-
tially two forms of spouts portrayed in West Mexican art
of this period—a ‘‘female’’ spout, in which the opening
is wider than the base, and a ‘‘male’’ spout, in which the
base is wider than the aperture. The spout on this figure
is of the ‘‘male’’ variety (pottery, Comala style, West
Mexican Shaft Tomb cultures, Colima, West Mexico, c.
100 B.C.–400 A.D. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Col-
lection 86.53.4).
Figures 4.5a–b
The figure’s demeanor indicates an individual engaged in deep inner contemplation. The facial
features are reduced and the lips tightened. The figure stares, as in trance. The horn at the top of
the head identifies him as an empowered shaman (pottery, Comala style, West Mexican Shaft
Tomb cultures, Colima, West Mexico, c. 100 B.C.–400 A.D. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Col-
lection F78.78.2).

Figures 4.6a–b
The figure is engaged in playing a large drum, with feet placed along the side of the instrument.
Figural whistles such as this were common ritual objects used in a variety of social and cultural
contexts. Note that the strap is wrapped around the horn, but not in a manner that would secure
a false horn to the figure’s head. The horn is depicted as a real emanation. The figure’s hunched
back is also iconographically significant. Hunchbacks were considered endowed with magical
powers in Mesoamerica (pottery, West Mexican Shaft Tomb culture, Colima, West Mexico, c. 100
B.C.–400 A.D. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection F74.8.9).
Figure 4.7
There are numerous sculptures in the Comala-style art of West
Mexico that depict trophy heads or disembodied heads. Head-
hunting was a widespread pattern. The size of horns on horned fig-
ures is believed to reflect the relative power of the individual. The
sculpture may represent the head of an enemy shaman taken in
battle (pottery, Comala Style, West Mexican Shaft Tomb cultures,
Colima, West Mexico, c. 100 B.C.–400 A.D. Bowers Museum of
Cultural Art Collection 86.56.11).

Figures 4.8a–b
The shape of the body is unusual, but the horn identifies the figure as an empowered shaman. The
long, angular, prominent nose and elongated face show some influence from the Jalisco area of
West Mexico in this composition. The coffee-bean eyes, however, are typical of the Colima area
(pottery, West Mexican Shaft Tomb cultures, Comala style, Colima, West Mexico, c. 100 B.C.–
400 A.D. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection 2000.40.21).

Figure 4.9
The figure is strapped to a bed and is portrayed in a highly
emotive state. A large horn emanates from the head. This
composition likely represents a shaman undergoing a hallu-
cinatory experience, strapped to the bed for his own protec-
tion. The sculpture is in fact a whistle that undoubtedly
would have been used by a shaman-priest in ritual activities
(pottery, Veracruz, Mexico, c. 550–1500. Bowers Museum
of Cultural Art Collection 96.56.10).
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 139

Figure 4.10
The two menacing figures that flank each side of the central figure are actually portrayed as ema-
nating from the central figure’s head. They are tingunas or projections of the central shaman’s
power. Projections emanating from the shaman’s body may take many different animal forms.
Serpents, birds, felines, and fanged figures are common forms of tingunas in the pre-Hispanic art
of Peru and elsewhere. On the other hand, crocodilians were commonly used in the Macaracas-
style art (c. 800–1000 A.D.) of Central Panama. Projections of this type are used to reference
shamanic empowerment (textile, Coastal Peru, c. 1000–1600. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Col-
lections 91.449.1).

are present, as in figures 4.4 and 4.6a–b, the strap is clearly wrapped around the protru-
sion, supported by it, rather than holding it in place against the head. In the case of
the West Mexican portrayals, the protruding horn is also associated with other icono-
graphy that assists us in identifying the figure as a shaman—for example, figural pos-
tures in which the figure is facing to the left, believed to be the direction from which
inimical spirits will approach a shaman.
A widespread convention in Central and South America was to depict emanations
from the body of the central shamanic figure. These often take the form of serpents,
crocodilians, birds, or other animals (figures 4.10 to 4.16). They are characteristically
serpentine and undulating regardless of the head of the animal depicted. The term
tinguna is used by Peruvian vegetalistas to refer to shamanic electromagnetic-like ema-
nations, which may take the form of animals or people. The term seems to be an
appropriate designation for the pre-Columbian portrayals. The Peruvian Lamistas from
whose language the term is derived entertain an analogous concept (Luna 1991, 33).
For them tingunas (figures 4.10 to 4.19) represent the shaman’s ability to radiate and
project shamanic power. The power projected is that of the lower animistic entity,
directed by the will of the higher animistic entity. The ethnographic description of
140 Armand J. Labbé

Figure 4.11
A central anthropomorphic figure stands in a menacing pose. Numerous tingunas incorporating
triangular elements emanate from the head and the sides of the body. Masks such as this were
placed over the face of the deceased, probably to protect the deceased from potentially harmful
spirits or forces. In such cases the shaman image serves as a guardian of the tomb and corpse. Al-
though each mummy mask is uniquely decorated, stock conventions such as the use of tingunas
as symbols of shamanic empowerment are routinely employed, as can be seen in the other exam-
ples referenced below (painted textile, Paracas culture, South Coast Peru, c. 300–100 B.C. Bowers
Museum of Cultural Art Collection 91.49.4).

Figure 4.12
The central figure in this mummy-mask fragment is characterized by large concentric eyes and nu-
merous tingunas, including tingunas in the form of feline heads. The composition represents an
empowered shaman. The power of the shaman is accentuated by the zigzag form given some of
the tingunas. The zigzag pattern is a symbol of lightning and hence dynamism and vitality
(painted textile, Paracas culture, South Coast Peru, c. 300–100 B.C. Bowers Museum of Cultural
Art Collection 91.49.9).
Figure 4.14
Figure 4.13 In this composition only the head of the sha-
The standing central anthropomorphic figure man is distinguished. The rest of the body has
is characterized by numerous projections and dissolved to become a field of emanations, or
emanations—that is, tingunas. The empowered tingunas (painted textile, Paracas culture,
shaman is a stock theme of the Paracas South Coast Peru, c. 300–100 B.C. Bowers Mu-
mummy masks (painted textile, Paracas cul- seum of Cultural Art Collection 91.49.6).
ture, South Coast Peru, c. 300–100 B.C. Bowers
Museum of Cultural Art Collection 91.49.20).

Figure 4.15
The principal emanations, or tingunas, in this
composition are serpentine in nature and ter-
minate in the form of trophy heads. This may
be an allusion to the central figure’s source of
Figure 4.16 shamanic power. Among neotropical ethno-
In this composition the tingunas emanating graphic groups that practiced head-hunting in
from the central body are serpentine in nature. the not-so-distant past, it was believed that
Some of the serpentine tingunas terminate in one could gain personal power by controlling
the form of trophy heads. Note the trophy the spirit of the beheaded enemy or, in some
cases, by incorporating the enemy’s spirit in
heads hanging from the figure’s arms (painted
one’s own being, thereby increasing one’s per-
textile, Paracas culture, South Coast Peru, c.
300–100 B.C. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art sonal power (painted textile, Paracas culture,
Collection 91.49.7). South Coast Peru, c. 300–100 B.C. Bowers Mu-
seum of Cultural Art Collection 91.49.5).
142 Armand J. Labbé

tingunas is the best explanation for the projections and emanations associated with
shamanic figures in pre-Columbian art.
Shamanic empowerment is the theme of a composition recorded on a blackware
stirrup-spout pottery bottle from the Chimu Culture (900–1420) of the North Coast
of Peru (figures 4.17a–b). The front of the vessel portrays a figure seated on a bench, a
widespread symbol of authority in pre-Columbian art, but also closely associated with
the shaman and shamanic contemplation. The figure holds a staff in each hand. On
the reverse side the bench is absent and the figure is transfigured. In place of staffs,

Figure 4.17a
The front side of the vessel depicts a shaman in Figure 4.17b
meditation, seated on a bench, and about to The back side of the vessel shows a shaman in
enter a trance state preparing himself for sha- transfiguration. Note the tingunas in the form
manic empowerment (black pottery, Chimu of serpents at the head and the two animal
culture, North Coast Peru, c. 1000–1500. familiars or spirit assistants flanking the sha-
Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection man. Although the bench is not indicated,
F81.49.1). this figure on the back side likely represents
the same shaman seen on the front of the ves-
sel, who is now in a transformed state of being.

animal auxiliaries flank the figure on each side. The figure appears to be levitating and
serpentine protrusions—that is, tingunas—emanate from the head or headdress.
The famed seven-foot-tall Peruvian Raimondi Stela, a Chavin (1000–500 B.C.) mon-
ument depicting a fanged anthropomorphic figure grasping a staff in each hand, is a
case in point. Numerous serpentine tingunas are seen emanating from the head and
sides of the body. This composition has been variously identified as an agricultural de-
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 143

Figure 4.18
Drawing of the Gateway God at Tiwanaku. The figure is characterized by a profusion of easily
identifiable shamanic images such as the serpentine tingunas emanating from the head and sides
of the body. Related iconography includes the trophy heads suspended from the arms, indicating
head-hunting. The figure holds a bird-headed staff in each arm. The iconography is clearly sha-
manic in nature. If the figure portrayed represents a deity, it is one the artist wishes us to recognize
as shamanically powerful. In many South American ethnographic cultures, the Sun Father is re-
ferred to as the First or Paramount Shaman. This may be the personage referenced in the so-called
Gateway God and Staff God compositions of Peru and Bolivia (artist rendering by Eric Beltz, 2001).

ity or simply referred to as a staff god. Whether a deity is intended or not, the tingunas
and fangs clearly identify the figure as one possessing great shamanic power. Similar
portrayals are seen on pre-Hispanic Peruvian pottery, as well as textiles, and are dis-
tinctly related to the so-called Gateway God or Portal God of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian
Highlands. In a line drawing of this monument (figure 4.18) the personage is seen
clutching a serpentine staff in each hand. As in the Raimondi stela, numerous serpen-
tine tingunas emanate from the head and sides of the body.
The images in question are generally found represented on monuments and on fu-
nerary art. The funerary context is not surprising, given the role of the shaman in these
societies as psychopomp, the individual entrusted with conducting the soul of the
144 Armand J. Labbé

Figure 4.19
The composition consists of two winged warrior figures, one on each side of the vessel. Each is
armed with spear and shield. Sparse vegetation, representative of the desert landscape of the
North Coast of Peru, is seen in the background. The bird-beaked face and wings suggest that this
composition represents a battle between two shamans occurring in out-of-body travel, or soul
flight. Each culture had its own iconographic conventions to depict the shaman-in-combat
theme. Winged warriors appear to have been a variant used by the Moche of Peru. Winged an-
thropomorphic figures are widespread in Central and South American pre-Columbian art (painted
pottery, Moche culture, North Coast Peru, c. 100–700. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection

dead into the afterlife. The iconographic associations with fertility are also not surpris-
ing, because the shaman in these societies is considered the guardian of fertility.
Both the horn symbol of Mesoamerica and the shamanic emanations (tingunas)
found in the pre-Columbian art of lower Central America and South America represent
projections of power beyond the confines of the normal physical body. In some
respects, the halos in Christian art used to depict the radiant soul of saints and the spir-
it forms of angelic beings may be seen as comparable artistic conventions.
Tingunas are almost invariably associated with figures that are undergoing or have
undergone metamorphosis: a condition invariably associated with shamans in the eth-
nographic literature. These same figures also usually have binary geometric emblems
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 145

or double-headed birds on their chests, a convention alluding to the shaman’s role as

intermediary between the dualistic powers of nature (Labbé 1995, 89–99) and referenc-
ing the shaman’s role in maintaining fertility and balance in nature.

‘‘Soul Flight’’: Bird Men and the Flight of the Soul

The so-called souls or animistic entities are perceived by shamans to be self-contained
fields of energy. They are believed capable of separating from the physical body either
accidentally or intentionally. Accidental separations are sometimes said to be due to
posttraumatic stress, incurred from severe accidents or even medication. Only shamans
who have undergone the necessary training, however, are believed capable of inten-
tionally leaving the body. This can be effected by means of trance, learned techniques,
or ingestion of psychomimetic substances such as yaje. The perceived ability of sha-
mans to leave their physical body and fly about in one or another soul body is univer-
sal in the neotropical literature: ‘‘Taking tobacco juice via the nose, the shaman
separates quickly his soul from his retching body and is transported by the tobacco
Spirit on an ecstatic journey’’ (Wilbert 1987, 174). According to Reichel-Dolmatof
(1971, 64), the Desana of the northwest Amazon held that ‘‘the soul can separate itself
occasionally from the body during life as for example, during a hallucinatory state or in
the case of a sudden accident.’’ Similarly, among the Aztecs of Mexico it was believed
that shamans ‘‘could voluntarily send their tonalli on magical flights to other worlds
outside their bodies, aided by hallucinogens’’ (Ortiz de Montellano 1990, 69).
Contextualizing this phenomenon against the backdrop of the two-soul theory, I
postulate that the principal entity that engages in ‘‘soul flight’’ is the higher animistic
entity. The shaman engages in soul flight as a willful, conscious entity. Both willful-
ness and consciousness are attributes associated with the higher animistic entity.
What is unclear is the nature of any involvement of the lower animistic entity in this
Since ‘‘soul flight’’ is a persistent theme in the South American ethnographic litera-
ture, one should expect to find it also represented in the pre-Columbian art of the re-
gion. In his influential work, Goldwork and Shamanism, Reichel-Dolmatoff proposed
that a genre of pre-Columbian gold artworks was embodied by representations of sha-
manic flight. The essential element in these compositions is a blending of avian and
anthropomorphic characteristics, ‘‘were-birds’’ so to speak, which are referenced as
birdmen in the scholarly literature (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1988, 77–95). Analogous bird-
men representations are found in the pre-Hispanic art of widely dispersed regions of
the Americas.
Reichel-Dolmatoff’s interpretation is supported by the fact that the cultures that pro-
duced these images were clearly shamanic cultures. The fact that similar imagery was
used over wide regions of the Americas would preclude the likelihood that the imagery
in question represents a local deity or an aspect of exclusive local myth.
146 Armand J. Labbé

Figure 4.20
This composition blends several shamanic themes, including the following: shaman-in-trance,
referenced by the concentric eyes in combination with an open, menacing mouth; shaman-
empowered, referenced by elements such as serpentine tingunas and stingray spines radiating
from the sides of the figure’s body; shaman-in-transformation, referenced by the fact that the fig-
ure is represented as an anthropomorphic saurian; shaman-in-soul-flight, referenced by the arms
that have been transformed into wings; and shaman-in-combat, referenced by the menacing pos-
ture and inherent dynamism of the composition (polychrome painted pottery, view of inner
bowl, Macaracas culture, Central Panama, c. 800–1000. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection

Anthropomorphic birdmen are portrayed in many pre-Columbian cultures. For ex-

ample, figure 4.19, a ceramic stirrup-spout vessel of the Moche culture of Peru, portrays
a winged, bird-headed, anthropomorphic warrior brandishing a shield and weapons.
Donnan (1978, 132) identified such figures as supernatural warriors. I agree that the
figure is not a portrayal of an ordinary warrior and that it represents a shaman, in soul
flight, about to engage in shamanic combat. Shamanic combat is a common theme of
neotropical shamanism and is portrayed in pre-Columbian art from West Mexico
down through Peru. In most other cultures in which the theme is portrayed there is
additional contextual iconography, such as tingunas, that enable us confidently to
identify the winged personage as a shaman.
There are several specific, winged anthropomorphic personages in the Moche art of
Peru. Among these are the so-called bird runners, which are winged anthropomorphic
figures, depicted running in profile, and generally shown carrying an unidentified ob-
ject: possibly something wrapped in a cloth. Donnan did not associate the ‘‘bird run-
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 147

Figure 4.21
This sketch, patterned after actual Olmec artworks, depicts a winged anthropomorphic figure,
likely a portrayal of a shaman in soul flight. In this case, however, the wings might be those of a
bat, rather than those of a bird, as seems to be indicated by the shape of the wings and the scallop-
ing of their sides (artist rendering by Eric Beltz, 2001).

ners’’ with shamanic flight. I suggest that the winged runners are also in soul flight,
and that they represent shamanic auxiliaries, or subordinates, in service to a para-
mount shaman.
Figure 4.20 is typical for the Macaracas style and depicts in its center an anthropo-
morphic frontal facing figure that represents a transformed shaman. A whole complex
of shamanically related iconography comes together in this composition; notable are
the concentric eyes and menacing teeth. His arms have transformed into wings sug-
gesting soul flight, while distinctive projections—that is, tingunas—emanate from the
head and body. The feet are equipped with long claws. The portrayal is a Central Pan-
amanian example of the shaman as supernatural warrior and is thematically equivalent
to the Moche supernatural winged warrior noted above.
Figure 4.21 is an artist’s rendering, based on actual examples, of a winged anthropo-
morphic figure in Olmec style. The wings, however, are scalloped in outline and may
represent those of a bat, rather than those of a bird. In any event it is likely that a
winged shaman and the theme of soul flight is intended. The figure is wearing a belt,
which may be a stylized Olmec version of the avian belts seen elsewhere (e.g., Reichel-
Dolmatoff 1988).
148 Armand J. Labbé

Shape-Shifting: Jaguars, Crocodilians, and the Transformation of Soul

Shamans who have mastered soul flight may also learn to willfully alter the shape and
appearance of their animistic entities, or souls. The ethnographic literature is rich in
allusions to the soul’s ability to shape-shift and undergo transformation. A Sibundoy
Indian from southern Colombia confided: ‘‘I saw it, you know, a firefly (the soul)
came along and then turned into a dog. The dog turned white and it wouldn’t let me
pass’’ (McDowell 1989, 131). It is noteworthy that the informant described the appari-
tion as a firefly—that is, visually a point of light. The association of the soul with a
point of light, as noted earlier, references the higher animistic entity.
Furst (1995, 69–83) noted that the Huichol shamans of West Mexico somersault to
transform themselves into animal alter egos. Referring to their shamanic ancestors,
Tukanoan informants of the northwest Amazon stated that these ancients had viho
(psychotropic snuff) to turn themselves into doubles (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975, 110).
The most common and widespread form assumed is that of the jaguar. Wilbert
(1987, 193) noted: ‘‘A closer affinity between jaguar and shaman is hardly conceiv-
able, and tobacco, like other mind-altering drugs, is an important agent of the jaguar
transformation complex of South America.’’ Among some groups the shaman-turned-
jaguar is imaged as a were-jaguar. The Catio, explains Wilbert, ‘‘picture them as person-
ages with a human body and feline head and claws’’ (p. 196). Wilbert’s description of
the Catio perspective resonates with many portrayals in pre-Columbian art, most nota-
bly the Olmec anthropomorphic jaguars with human body and feline head.
Were-jaguar representations are common in the Olmec art of Mesoamerica. Some
researchers have recognized that the Olmec were-jaguar forms are representations of
shamanic transformation (Furst 1995, 69–81). Figures 4.22 to 4.24 are representative
of typical portrayals of Olmec jaguar transformations. In most of the Olmec renditions,
the jaguar characteristics are especially pronounced in the figure’s head, particularly
in the region of the face below the eyes. The mouths are often depicted snarling. The
bodies are generally more anthropomorphic in detail.
A jaguar metate (figures 4.25a–b) from Costa Rica also places the jaguar characteristics
in the head. The binary complementary geometric design atop the feline’s head serves
to bring attention to the shaman’s power over fertility in the same manner that similar
symbolism is placed on the chest of shamanic figures in other compositions. The legs
of the metate are composed of a series of inverted bird heads. Inverted images in pre-
Columbian art are often allusions to the underworld, another shamanic domain. In fig-
ure 4.26 each of the various shamanic dimensions—that is, Upper, Middle, and Lower
Worlds—is seen to be an inverted, mirror image of the adjacent world. The zigzag
lightning pattern effected as negative design forms a network used by the artist to illus-
trate the interconnectedness of the three realms of reality, as well as the interconnect-
edness of life itself.
Figure 4.22
Kneeling figure with jaguar facial features and anthropomorphic
body. The hands are held on knees, a stock posture associated
with Olmec anthropomorphic jaguar figures, portraying the
jaguar transformation theme (artist rendering by Eric Beltz,

Figure 4.23
Figure is kneeling with one knee bent and the other
raised. The body is anthropomorphic, the face catlike
(artist rendering Eric Beltz, 2001).

Figure 4.24
Typical of all Olmec depictions of the jaguar transforma-
tion theme is the portrayal of the body in anthropomor-
phic form with the head rendered with strong feline
characteristics. The pose and style of this sketch pat-
terned after actual Olmec artworks is very close in style
to the feline-headed artwork from Key Marco, Florida,
referenced in the text (artist rendering Eric Beltz, 2001).
150 Armand J. Labbé

Figures 4.25a–b
Highly ornate and intricately carved metates such as this are found in the funerary context of elite
burials. Metates, or grinding stones, are by nature associated with the concept of transformation.
Only the head of the sculpture is in jaguar form. The legs incorporate a series of long-beaked bird
heads positioned upside down. The composition is shamanic in nature. The jaguar head alludes to
the theme of jaguar transformation associated with neotropical shamans. The shamanic nature of
the jaguar head is reinforced by the interlocking, binary L-shaped elements used to decorate the
head. This alludes to the shaman’s control over the dualistic male and female forces involved in
fertility and the formation of life (volcanic rock, Guanacaste-Nicoya zone, Costa Rica, Late Period
IV–Period V, c. 300–700. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection 97.40.1).

Key Marco, a site excavated by Frank Cushing in the 1890s, yielded an extraordinary
sculpture in wood depicting a kneeling form with human body and feline head. Al-
though the piece is estimated to have been made sometime between 1000 and 1400,
it is remarkably similar in style and composition to the much earlier Olmec jaguar
transformation pieces, which mostly date from between 1000 and 400 B.C. (see figure
4.24, which the Key Marco sculpture closely resembles). The Olmec pieces were largely
unknown at the time of the Cushing excavations. The shamanic nature of the Key
Marco sculpture is underscored by the series of triangles encircling the eyes of the
feline head. Geometric configurations, often in the form of stylized bird heads or styl-
ized birds, commonly encircle the eyes of shamanic figures in pre-Columbian art. The
sculpture likely represents a shamanic feline transformation and may be older than
heretofore realized.
A common practice in pre-Columbian art is the use of metonyms, the representation
of a complex symbolism by abstracting a part of the complex to represent the whole.
In the case of the were-jaguar, the feline’s fangs were abstracted and used in such a
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 151

Figure 4.26
The design is divided into three decorative bands, each representing a division of the shamanic
cosmos. The upper band represents the Upper World, the middle band the Middle World, and
the bottom band the Underworld. Each band is a mirror image of the adjacent band. The artist,
however, has deftly connected all three realms by means of geometric zigzag design elements,
used to represent lightning, which itself represents dynamism and fertility (painted pottery, Chu-
picuaro culture, Guanajuato, Mexico, c. 300–100 B.C. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection

manner. Fanged anthropomorphic figures, lacking other feline characteristics, are com-
mon in the art of Colombia (figures 4.27 to 4.30), Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Many of
these are likely representations of shamanic were-jaguars.
In the art of Central Panama, although shamanic felines are depicted, were-
crocodilians or were-saurians are more common. Typically, the were-crocodilians are
rendered in profile. The torso, characteristically, is decorated with binary geometrics,
symbolic of the shaman’s mastery of dualistic forces, particularly fertility. Both the
hands and feet are clawed. The composition is a classic example of the transformed
shaman as warrior, which is emblematic of the shaman-in-combat theme portrayed in
figure 4.20, a frontal-facing version of a were-crocodilian. In figure 4.20, the shaman-
in-soul-flight theme is combined with that of the shaman-in-combat. In common
152 Armand J. Labbé

Figure 4.27
The negative space around the figure’s eyes is in the form
of stylized bird heads, more commonly painted around
the eyes of shamanic figures in the pottery art of other
regions. The fanged teeth are used metonymically to rep-
resent the jaguar. Metonymy is a common feature of pre-
Columbian art. This figure, then, may represent an
empowered shaman serving as a guardian figure. The
shamanic context of San Agustı́n art is indisputable.
Many comparable figures were found buried within the
numerous elite cist graves found in the San Agustı́n re-
gion. They serve as guardians of the tomb (San Agustı́n
Region, Colombia. Photograph by Armand J. Labbé,

with other compositions in this genre from Central Panama, the figure’s eyes are
encircled with bird-head motifs and tingunas in the form of stingray spines.
Earlier interpretations identified such were-creatures as ‘‘Crocodile Gods’’ or ‘‘Bat
Gods’’: names chosen by the researcher simply because the personage was no ordinary

Figure 4.28
The figure is in a dynamic posture with the arms, in ten-
sion, pulled back alongside the body. The alter ego is in
the form of a bicephalic anthropomorphic saurian with
a human head atop and a crocodilian head below. The
composition is clearly shamanic in nature (San Agustı́n
Region, Colombia. Photograph by Armand J. Labbé,
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 153

Figure 4.30
The figure is fanged and is surmounted by an
alter-ego figure. He brandishes a club to indi-
cate that he is ready for combat. This composi-
Figure 4.29 tion is a San Agustı́n example of the shaman-
The fangs are likely used here metonymically in-combat theme seen elsewhere (San Agustı́n
to reference a jaguar tranformation by an Region, Colombia. Photograph by Armand J.
empowered shaman (San Agustı́n Region, Co- Labbé, 1984).
lombia. Photograph by Armand J. Labbé,

animal since it had mixed zoomorphic and human characteristics. More recent ethno-
graphic findings, however, suggest an alternative interpretation. The neotropical data-
base is rich in references to the theme of shamanic transformation and the association
of this theme with were-animals, but devoid of references to bat gods or crocodile gods.
Even in cases where the figure may represent a deity, the iconography is referencing
the shamanic power of the deity. Although certain forces of nature were personified
as deities, animals were not.
Animal imagery, but not anthropomorphized animal imagery, was most commonly
used to reference attributes of deities. In Mexico, the turtle was used to image the
earth in relationship to the movement of the sun along the horizon. The head of a
toad was used to refer to a male aspect of the earth, Tlaltecuhtli. A feathered serpent
represented Quetzalcoatl, a personification of the cosmic dual-natured life force
that was engendered by the cosmic duality, Ometéotl, another name for Ometecuhtli-
154 Armand J. Labbé

Figures 4.31a–b
This composition is an example of the shaman-in-transformation theme. In this case the shaman
is shape-shifting into a bird form. The human arms are, however, still visible and the head is por-
trayed as more human than birdlike. The body is painted with dynamic tingunas and the eyes are
encircled with the image of a bird head. Both tingunas and the parrot-head eyes are iconographic
indicators that the figure portrayed is a shamanic figure (polychrome pottery, Conte style, Central
Panama, c. 600–800. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Collection 97.115.5).

Omecihuatl. None of these animal representations, however, referred to the animal

portrayed as an animal god.
Among some groups in South America, the spiritual sun played a prominent role, as
did certain forces of nature, but the cosmologies are surprisingly sophisticated. The
sun, as avatar and harbinger of civilization, is given anthropomorphic form among
some groups.
A number of Panamanian pieces depict shamans in avian transformation. Figure
4.31a is a typical example of this genre. That we are not observing a ritual in which a
practitioner is simply wearing an avian costume is indicated iconographically. The fig-
ure is coded with typical, easily identifiable shamanic imagery such as the profile bird-
head markings around the eyes and the dynamic tingunas painted on the torso. The
shaman’s metamorphosis into a bird is indicated by the lack of legs and feet, and is
especially evident when the figure is seen in profile (figure 4.31b).
Figures 4.11 to 4.16, a group of mummy cloths from the Paracas culture of Coastal
Peru, illustrate the widespread distribution of the essential iconography noted above.
Each cloth is decorated with a central shamanic figure. Each figure is seen frontally and
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 155

each has numerous serpentine tingunas emanating from the body. All have open
mouths with bared menacing teeth. The images on these cloths are Paracas versions
of the empowered shaman and shaman-in-combat themes. The Paracas examples are
conceptually and iconographically essentially identical to the Central Panamanian
examples (compare the Paracas examples in figures 4.11 to 4.16 with figure 4.20). The
significance of the Paracas examples lies in their age, between 300 and 100 B.C., which
ranks them among the earliest artworks reflecting these themes and associated icono-
graphy. In figure 4.10, a later fragment of a large Coastal Peruvian textile, the central
personage is flanked by anthropomorphic jaguars, which on closer inspection are also
seen to be tingunas emanating from his head.

Soul Capture and Soul Loss

The concept of soul capture, like the other themes discussed above, is intimately con-
nected to the indigenous concept of soul. The indigenous concept views the lower an-
imistic entity to be phenomenally based. Since the lower animistic entity is purported
to be a self-contained field of energy, driven and sustained by the vital force, it is sus-
ceptible to being affected by other phenomena or actions directed against it.
As noted above, both the esoteric traditions of India and China postulate the exis-
tence of a system of channels through which the vital force is said to flow. Acupunc-
ture was developed in China as a means of stimulating the flow of vital force through
meridians or centers that had become congested or blocked. It is held that if the flow of
chi is impeded, ill-health will follow.
It is also held that in a healthy individual the lower animistic entity permeates the
physical form, thereby bathing it in vital force. If the flow of vital force is impeded, a
corresponding part of the body will be deprived of vital force and will therefore be sus-
ceptible to degeneration, attack by invasive agencies, and decay. There is a strong con-
ceptual link between the vital force and health. This link is found cross-culturally and
is widespread. (In this respect it is noteworthy that the Egyptian hieroglyph for the ka,
or lower animistic entity, was a pair of arms and hands held upright, which meant to
The portrayal, in art, of numerous tingunas—that is, vital emanations—may thus be
seen as a means of emphasizing that the shaman has great stores of vital force. Figures
4.20 and 4.10 to 4.16 are illustrative. Indigenous ideology identifies the lower animistic
entity with the vital force. By inference, the tingunas, therefore, are emanating from
the shaman’s subtle body, the lower animistic entity.
From the indigenous perspective, vital force can be increased or decreased. Its flow
(through the meridians) can be enhanced or impeded. The concept of soul loss refer-
ences this characteristic of the vital force. Soul loss, therefore, is a condition associated
in the indigenous mind with the lower animistic entity. The concept of soul loss is not
restricted to indigenous communities. Under the name of susto, it also forms part of
156 Armand J. Labbé

the cultural reality of the mestizo and white populations of Latin America. The vulner-
ability of the vital force is not, however, a purely conceptual phenomenon. The con-
cept of vital force, and such phrases as ‘‘soul loss’’ and ‘‘soul capture’’ that refer to
vital force, are narrative representations of actual physical processes.
To the casual observer, the individual afflicted with susto appears paranoid and phys-
ically wasting. As the condition progresses, the individual complains of acute cold and
numbness in the extremities and voices concern about impending death. Western
physicians who are confronted with it often diagnose the condition as posttraumatic
stress. The indigenous healers and mestizo curanderos diagnose the illness as due to
soul loss. The condition can be brought on in many ways, but a common cause is a sit-
uation in which the victim believes that he or she is being targeted by a malevolent
sorcerer. If the victim shares the indigenous perspectives on sorcery, great fear is engen-
dered. Western medicine is usually inefficient in bringing about a cure of susto, while
the indigenous healers reputedly have a high success rate. The difference in interpreta-
tion between the Western doctor and the indigenous healer about the nature of susto,
however, is significant to this success.
The indigenous healer believes that the victim of susto is in a condition in which the
lower animistic entity is partially or in great part projected from the body due to the
engendered fear. From the indigenous perspective, this will deprive certain parts of
the physical body of vital force, resulting in vulnerability to invasive agents and chill
and cold in the hands and feet. If unchecked, this vulnerability progresses ever upward
from these extremities.
The healer of susto begins by establishing a rapport with the victim. The treatment
often consists of a combination of chanting, aromatic herbs, and shaking a rattle. By
implication, the treatment consists in coaxing the lower animistic entity to return fully
to the body. The lower animistic entity’s attention is apparently solicited through
the aromatic herbs and the sound of the rattle, because it is believed that the sense
of hearing and sense of smell are the two most developed senses in the lower animistic
entity. To an outside observer unfamiliar with the indigenous belief system, the
whole procedure seems like so much superstitious nonsense. To the informed observer,
the treatment is a logical response within the context of the indigenous concept of
The ethnographic literature for Mesoamerica and the neotropics documents the
widespread belief that an individual’s lower animistic entity could be drained of its
energy, captured, or even absorbed by an adversarial shaman. The following references
are illustrative.
Rulers, who had special need for tonalli, could also increase it through other means.
Slaves were sacrificed to add vitality to the ruler and to extend his life (Sahagún 1956,
vol. 1, 334–335).
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 157

Since a man with an arutam soul cannot die as the result of physical violence, poisoning, or witch-
craft, i.e., any interpersonal attack, a person who wishes to kill a specific enemy attempts to steal
his arutam soul away from him as a prelude to assassinating him. (Harner 1984, 141)

The soul of any individual is exposed to many dangers. A payé (shaman) may seize it and thus
cause death or serious illness. (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971, 65)

The Sahagún mention of tonalli refers to the vital force and hence the lower animistic
entity, while the Harner reference pertains to the Jivaro of Eastern Ecuador. The arutam
soul is believed to be the soul of an ancestor that is initially acquired by an individual
prepared to receive one. Its acquisition is thought to confer power and protection
against harm to its possessor. The soul referenced in Reichel-Dolmatoff’s comment on
the Desana is the simpora. Among the Yanomamo, who, like other Native Americans,
entertain the concept of multiple souls, the animistic entity that is vulnerable to harm
or capture is known as the noreshi: ‘‘Sickness results when the noreshi has left the body.
Unless it is brought back soon, the person will die. The noreshi is the vulnerable portion
of the complete being, the part that is the target of witchcraft and harmful magic’’
(Chagnon 1968, 49).
The identification of soul capture in pre-Columbian art is difficult to ascertain be-
cause of the variables involved. The ethnographic literature informs us that the soul
capturer is the shaman or one of his or her spirit agents. Any composition portraying
soul capture should have a figure identifiable as a shaman or a shaman’s agent. The
composition must also include an element or icon identifiable as the captured soul. A
clue to identifying the element that represents the captured soul may lie in the Jivaro
ethnographic database. Among the Jivaro, one of the purposes of head taking and head
shrinking is to capture the muisak or ‘‘avenging soul’’ of an enemy (Harner 1984, 145).
The muisak is thus contained, and for a time at least, is imprisoned within the trophy
head. Within the context of indigenous concepts of soul presented above, this would
imply that the lower animistic entity had been prevented from leaving the body along
with the higher animistic entity. Because a prime exit from the body is through the
crown of the head, the implication would be that this passageway had been blocked
in the course of the capture and before the decapitation had taken place, thereby pre-
venting the lower animistic entity from leaving the head.
The pre-Columbian art of Coastal Peru contains many compositions depicting pow-
erful shamanic personages holding trophy heads. In the art of Sipan, a manifestation
of Moche culture, such a personage is known as the decapitator. The decapitator char-
acteristically has a fearsome open mouth with large felinelike fangs (a were-jaguar sha-
man?) and holds a head in one hand and a large tumi knife in the other.
Another Moche theme that may reflect a concept analogous to that of Aztec rulers
increasing their tonalli by absorbing the tonalli of sacrificed victims, is the Moche sac-
rifice ceremony epitomized by a line drawing on a Moche ceramic vessel (Donnan,
158 Armand J. Labbé

1976, 160–161). The scene consists of a powerful central figure, with what appear to be
serpentine tingunas emanating from his head, being offered cups of blood obtained
from sacrificed prisoners. The cup bearer is an anthropomorphic winged personage.
The iconography suggests that the central figure is either a powerful ruler or shaman
(perhaps shaman-priest or even shaman-ruler) in the act of ingesting the vital force of
the sacrificed victims by drinking their blood. The winged humans are likely shamanic
auxiliaries—that is, subordinate shaman assistants.
Flying anthropomorphs clutching trophy heads or spiritized figures are common in
the pre-Columbian graphic art of South Coast Peru. Such forms are usually identified as
mythic creatures in the literature. Like the Moche ‘‘decapitator,’’ they often have a
knife in one hand and a head or spirit form in the other. The artists seem to equate
the head and the spirit form, and to have the head is to have control over the spirit
form. The two are artistically and contextually connected. The decapitators, moreover,
are usually rendered in profile, with bodies and legs positioned horizontally to give the
appearance of flying. Given the associations in the ethnographic literature between tro-
phy heads, blood, and indigenous concepts of soul, I suggest that they represent sha-
mans in flight in the act of soul capture. Figures 4.32a–b are an example of one of these
profile figures. This example is from the Nazca culture of the South Coast of Peru. The
figure’s head is human but the body is long and serpentine in nature and terminates in
the form of a bird. A closer look at the serpentine body, however, reveals that the body
is filled from one end to the other with schematized anthropomorphic spirit figures
that apparently have been ingested or consumed by the central figure. The implication
is that the power of the central figure is derived from the spirits he or she has ingested.


What is the relevance of indigenous concepts of soul to an understanding of native

concepts of consciousness? To begin, the model of consciousness that emerges from a
study of pre-Columbian art and the contemporary ethnographies is inferred from and
implied in the data, rather than stated or defined. The study only allows for a prelimi-
nary reconstruction of the native perspectives pertaining to concepts of consciousness.
Nonetheless, certain salient features can be discerned.
The Native American paradigm identifies the higher animistic entity as the experi-
encer of consciousness. It rejects the view that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of
purely material processes. Although the higher animistic entity normally functions
through the physical body and subtle body, it ultimately has an existence independent
of either. In this respect, the model also distinguishes the consciousness of an ordinary
individual from that of a trained adept; that of the former is conditioned, that of the
latter can be intentionally enhanced or modified.
Pre-Columbian Artistic Expressions of Indigenous Concepts of Soul 159

Figures 4.32a–b
Whether the personage portrayed on this jar is a shaman in transformation or a personage taken
from the shamanic mindscape of prehistoric Peru, is unclear. The iconography, however, suggests
a shaman in transformation. The figure’s head and face are essentially human. The body is serpen-
tine and terminates in a bird form. All of these elements can be seen incorporated in shamanic
figures from other pre-Columbian regions. Moreover, a close examination of the body (see figure
4.32b) reveals that a series of spirit forms with heads have been ingested and run through the cen-
ter and length of the central figure’s body. This would suggest that the central figure has captured
and incorporated these spirits into his being and that they may be a source of his power (poly-
chrome pottery, Nazca culture, South Coast Peru, c. 100–600. Bowers Museum of Cultural Art Col-
lection 88.50.1).

Ordinary consciousness is affected by physical law, the physical and subtle forms, as
well as culture. Relative to the conditioned individual, the adept is characterized by
increased control, enhanced powers, and freedom of movement within the realms of
the shamanic cosmos. The ordinary individual experiences a world of fixed conscious-
ness localized in the physical space occupied by the body. The adept is not only capa-
ble of altering the operational mode of consciousness; his or her consciousness moves
freely within the field of reality.
The common person’s identity is derived from his or her identification with the
physical form and from the functions and positions allotted to a person by culture
and society. The adept’s identity is largely with life itself as process and destiny. Form
160 Armand J. Labbé

has only relative significance, as a functional mask adopted as adaptation to environ-

ment. Lacking fixed intrinsic significance, it is viewed as a tool, a mere vehicle of phe-
nomenal expression. In this scheme, there are no hierarchies of forms, merely formal
functions in the integrated fabric of life.
In conformity with the Buddhist view, the indigenous American model of conscious-
ness acknowledges that the phenomenal aspects of consciousness result from the inter-
play of phenomenal forces—that is, they are the product of conditioned coproduction.
In this view, sense consciousness—such as vision or hearing—is conditioned by and
dependent on sensory stimuli and sensory receptors. Unlike Buddhism, however, the
indigenous model does not deny the existence of an individual soul, only the view
that this soul is independent of the rest of reality.
Although none of the indigenous beliefs can be ontologically demonstrated at pres-
ent, the fact that such beliefs persisted for thousands of years, as is demonstrated by
the pre-Columbian art, and the fact that the claims made in the Americas are sup-
ported by similar claims made by indigenous practitioners in cultures worldwide, argue
against the proposition that such claims are merely personal fantasies engendered by
The interpretations given above constitute working hypotheses that can be applied
against the ethnographic and pre-Columbian data. The value of any hypothesis lies in
its ability to order the data in meaningful ways and explain problems posed by the
The study underscores the need for additional ethnographic work on extant indige-
nous cultures that focuses specifically on collecting data on indigenous concepts of
soul and native esoterica. This requires the development of a well-designed research
model and the identification of indigenous informants, willing and qualified to com-
ment on the esoterica of their group.


I would like to thank Peter Keller (President) and Vickie Byrd (CAO) of the Bowers Museum of
Cultural Art for supporting this research; Alice Bryant (Collections Manager) and Jennifer Manuel
(Assistant Collections Manager) for the preparation of artworks for study and photography; and
Jennifer Miller for administrative assistance. My thanks to Eric Beltz (graphics), Thor J. Mednick
(textual reading, commentary, and suggestions), and to Helmut Wautischer, for patience and


Chagnon, Napoleon A. (1968), Yanomamö: The Fierce People, New York: Holt, Rinehart and
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CA: University of California.

Donnan, Christopher B. (1978), Moche Art of Peru, Los Angeles, CA: Fowler Museum of Cultural
History, UCLA.

——— (1992), Ceramics of Ancient Peru, Los Angeles, CA: Fowler Museum of Cultural History,

Donnan, Christopher B., and Walter Alva (1993), Royal Tombs of Sipan, Los Angeles, CA: Fowler
Museum of Cultural History, UCLA.

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Mesoamerica,’’ Anthropologica, Vol. 15, pp. 29–80.

——— (1995), ‘‘Shamanism, Transformation, and Olmec Art,’’ in Jill Guthrie, ed., The Olmec
World Ritual and Rulership, pp. 69–82, Princeton, NJ: The Art Museum, Princeton University, in as-
sociation with Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

——— (1998), ‘‘Shamanic Symbolism, Transformation, and Deities in West Mexican Funerary
Art,’’ in Richard F. Townsend, ed., Ancient West Mexico: Art and Archaeology of the Unknown Past,
pp. 169–190, Chicago, IL: The Art Institute of Chicago.

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tutes The Book of Going Forth by Day,’’ in Eva Von Dossow, ed., The Book of Going Forth by Day, San
Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.

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F. Townsend, ed., Ancient West Mexico: Art And Archaeology of the Unknown Past, pp. 191–203, Chi-
cago, IL: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Harner, Michael J. (1984), The Jı́varo: People of the Sacred Waterfalls, Berkeley, CA: University of Cal-
ifornia Press.

Henderson, Richard (1972), The King in Every Man, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Hultkrantz, Åke (1953), Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians, Monograph Series 1,
The Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, Stockholm.

——— (1980), The Religions of the American Indians, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

——— (1997), Soul and Native Americans, Woodstock: Spring Publications.

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——— (1986), Colombia Before Columbus: The People, Culture, and Ceramic Art of Prehispanic Colom-
bia, New York, NY: Rizzoli International.

——— (1995), Guardians of the Life Stream: Shamans, Art and Power in Prehispanic Central Panamá,
Santa Ana, CA: Cultural Arts Press.
162 Armand J. Labbé

——— (1998), Shamans, Gods, and Mythic Beasts: Colombian Gold and Ceramics in Antiquity, New
York and Seattle: The American Federation of Arts and the University of Washington Press.

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and II, Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press.

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Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

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5 Why One Is Not Another: The Brain-Mind Problem in Byzantine

Antoine Courban


Stimulated by my studies on the human body as an anatomist, and because of my deep concern
about critical anthropological matters like ‘‘consciousness’’ and the relations inside the binomial
entity ‘‘soma-psyché’’ (brain-mind, body-soul, flesh-spirit), I have chosen my subject for this
chapter as it is widely discussed in the history of ideas, an academic field sometimes called
culturology. I have always been puzzled by the divorce between medicine and philosophy that,
according to Celsius, occurred at the time of Hippocrates of Cos. Anthropological dualism is
indeed the very heart and the major issue of such reflection. Philosophy and medicine separated,
although incompletely, about the problem known as ‘‘the disease of the soul’’ (Gk: psyché (cuwh̀),
cool breath of life; menos (ménov), pneuma, also with the meaning ‘‘passion’’). For multiple
historical reasons, passions were excluded from consideration in ancient scientific medicine and
captured by philosophy. Later on, due to the influence of Stoic thought on the new Christian
religion, dualism passed into the patrimony of religious sensitivity, where it can still be traced in
the traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, more precisely those concerning monastic life and writings.
My aim in this chapter is to narrate this story and to highlight some key changes in the
anthropological dualistic paradigm of late antiquity, which have allowed the emergence of a less
radical and more monistic one in the Byzantine culture. My approach is transdisciplinary. I will
mainly, although not exclusively, focus on the intermediary era going from the death of Galen
(c. 131–c. 201) until the time of Maximus of Chrysopolis (c. 580–662, also known as Maximus of
Constantinople or Maximus the Confessor). This era is erroneously thought to be the realm of
theology and religious history, when in fact it has also been an essential breaking point in the
history of ideas, especially with regard to the self-image of human beings. Many scholars
consider Maximus the most important and most specific ‘‘Byzantine’’ thinker: the one who
shaped a Byzantine Weltanschauung that still shapes the ideas and imagination of a large
number of people belonging to, or influenced by, the cultural ‘‘Dower of Byzantium.’’ I will first
attempt to give a definition of what could be called so, and later explore ‘‘what, if anything, is
Byzantine,’’ as Clifton Fox (1996) asks. By discussing the historical evolution of anthropological
ideas between late antiquity and the early Byzantine era, I will highlight the emergence of some
significant nondualistic concepts, from whose study one may recognize a nonmonistic quality of
164 Antoine Courban

the supposed ‘‘monism’’ as it is embraced by current mainstream cognitive science and

The Byzantine concepts involved may appear fairly familiar in the modern Anglo-American
debate of brain-mind issues. This contemporary debate highlights some rather Platonic notions
of mind-brain relationships that are conceived as being the actual operation of efficient
causality—in other words, as if actions only came from the brain. Instead, I will try to present a
modern account of that Byzantine-specific Weltanschauung, one that looks like Alice’s ‘‘other
side of the mirror.’’ In this case, much remains unfamiliar and puzzling to those who are on
‘‘this’’ side. I wish to let the reader better understand the cultural background for the triumph of
contemporary academic dualism, widely believed to be a monism. This triumph is a result of the
split between medicine and philosophy, which led to the elimination of passions from the
medical sciences and their capture by philosophy, principally the Stoa. It also resulted from the
partition between diseases of the body and diseases of the soul, which led to a certain
globalization of the monism-playing dualism. To this purpose, my discussion will elaborate in
passing on the developments of some issues at stake throughout the history of the Eastern
Roman Empire (313–1453), which we call, rather erroneously, the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire

By modern convention, we call the Byzantine Empire a political entity that once domi-
nated the whole Mediterranean world after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great
had adopted Christianity and decided, in 313, to transfer his capital from Rome to the
ancient city of Byzantium, on the Bosphorus. The new capital was officially inaugu-
rated in 330 under the name of New Rome, the city of Constantine, or Constantinople.
In 1204 it was captured and looted by the crusaders, who established a Latin empire
until the ‘‘Byzantines’’ expelled them in 1261 and restored their previous empire. In
1453, this political entity ceased to exist after being conquered by the Ottoman Sultan
Mehmet II. Nevertheless the city, today known as Istanbul, remained the capital of an
immense empire ruled by the Ottomans until the end of World War I and the disman-
tling of the old European universal empires.

Short History of a Misunderstanding

The political role as well as the specific cultural influence of such a long historical pe-
riod is not sufficiently understood by the modern educated public. Byzantium is regret-
fully a victim of historiography. Lasting for eleven centuries and rich in its cultural
heritage, Byzantine civilization has been denigrated and pejoratively judged. The term
itself was used and popularized by French scholars of the eighteenth century. Mon-
tesquieu (1689–1755), for example, worshiped immensely the ancient Greeks and
Romans and refused to give such noble names to the empire in Constantinople. He
preferred to call it ‘‘Byzantine’’ after the city’s ancient name, and inaugurated the
traditional commonplace of speaking about this historical era with the moral preju-
Why One Is Not Another 165

dice of corruption, cruelty, and decadence. The British scholar Edward Gibbon pro-
duced an account of the empire’s history where he covered the entire Byzantine era.
The title of his work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, conveys a significant

Urbs Romana and Romanitas

The citizens of this empire never realized, from 330 until 1453, that they were Byzan-
tine. They knew themselves as Romans (romaioı̈ in Greek; rum in Turkish; rumi in Ara-
bic) and apparently took pride in their culture. They lived in different provinces of the
Imperium Romanorum (Basileia Romaion); their homeland was their Patria, in the mod-
ern sense of the word. Their land was known to be the Domain of the Romans, or The
Romania. Contemporary Arab chronicles called it Bilad al Rum (the Roman Lands) and
sometimes merely Rum (Rome). In the Chinese chronicles of that time, Rum is known
as Ta-Tsin: the concept conveyed by this term is that of the final stage and destination
of what we call today the Silk Road. It should be noted that in the Roman East, or Pars
Orientalis, a cultural or sociological hiatus with late antiquity never occurred. It instead
happened in the Roman West, or Pars Occidentalis, due to the barbaric invasions and
the ages that followed in Western Europe. In the Pars Orientalis, things went on as
usual, after Emperor Caracalla, in 212, granted Roman citizenship to all his subjects,
or more precisely to all free persons living in the empire.

The Dower of Byzantium

Regardless of its pejorative and erroneous usage, the term Byzantine nonetheless is
helpful, for it identifies and categorizes specific realities that François Thual (2004) per-
tinently calls ‘‘The dower of Byzantium.’’ We may recognize three levels to this dower,
and different boundaries and contents to each of them.

Politics Historically, Byzantium flourished in the same era (330–1453) that found
most of Western Europe ensnared with poverty and violence. It was the economic
hub of the Mediterranean world, and stood at the political and cultural heart of Eu-
rope. It was Roman/Latin in its institutions and its management methods, Hellenistic/
Greek in its culture, and Semitic/Judeo-Christian in its religion; this epitomizes the
specificity of Byzantium. In other words, we have here an interesting historical combi-
nation of Latin legalism, Hellenic intellectualism, and Semitic realism.

Religion Byzantine civilization contributed strongly to the development of Christian-

ity and its philosophy. Some of its heritage is shared, to a large extent, by all Christian
denominations. This is true, as will be seen, concerning some issues related to the an-
thropological basis of this religious system. Since the separation that occurred in 1054
between Eastern and Western churches, the Byzantine religious patrimony is mainly
166 Antoine Courban

the realm of Eastern Orthodox people in Central and Eastern Europe, in the Middle
East, the Caucasus, and far beyond, where different orthodox Diasporas live. Although
deeply related, Orthodoxy and Byzantium can neither be interpolated nor confused.
The whole of Orthodoxy is not all of Byzantium and vice versa.

Culture This topic is of the utmost importance for this chapter, and I will remain on
this specific level for the entire discussion. As I have mentioned above, the heart of this
realm includes the self-assessment of its people, in Eastern Europe including Russia, in
the eastern Mediterranean, or generally belonging to Eastern Christianity of multiple
jurisdictions, either Orthodox or Catholic, but certainly non-Latin and nonderived
from the movements of Reformation. This cultural dower expands also into Western
Europe. The development of Eastern and Western Europe diverged due to cultural mis-
understanding, and mainly on issues that I will address later. Nevertheless, Byzantium
contributed in shaping the Western imagination. It elaborated numerous figurative
models of European art, and crucial concepts of Western civilization, like ‘‘the human
person,’’ or the relations between reality and the modalities for its reproduction into
paintings. Louis Brehier (1970, 479) observes that the whole Western erudition re-
mains indebted to the immense achievements in philology accomplished by Byzantine
scholars. In some way, Byzantium can be considered the missing or forgotten link of
Western cultural identity. At the same time, right at its oriental flank, Byzantium trans-
mitted its culture to the Arab-Islamic culture. In many of its features, this latter is, more
or less, Byzantine. This correlation is noteworthy for the history of science and the his-
tory of ideas. For example, medical concepts and also practical or institutional models
of Arabic medicine are Byzantine to a large extent, even though some of their own
achievements surpassed these roots. Representative Byzantine and Arab physicians
and scholars, like the desert father, Abba Macarius of Egypt (c. 301–c. 390), Ibn Bajja
(Avempace: 1090–1139), or Gregory Palamas (1296–1359), share roughly a similar
nondualistic anthropology. Yet some prominent Arab thinkers like Ibn-Sina (Avicenna:
980–1037) or Abu’l Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd Al-Qurtubi (Averroes:
1126–1198)—who planted some of the seeds of the European Renaissance—remain
closer to antiquity’s dualistic ideas than to the Western Scholastic culture of the Mid-
dle Ages.

A Corporeal Mental Profile

Throughout the Mediterranean, Eastern and Western minds remain very close to each
other. They have the same roots, share a common patrimony, and use the same sym-
bols. Yet they remain different, which does not mean that they are contradictory or
mutually exclusive. They are rather complementary. The Scholastic era, the Renais-
sance, and the Enlightenment gave the Western mind its specific features, while Byz-
antine culture did not go through the medieval academic turbulence of nominalism
Why One Is Not Another 167

versus realism, known as the ‘‘quarrel about universals,’’ and it was also not influenced
by Cartesian dualism. The Byzantine mind operates not in modo geometrico but rather
through images.1 It is, mutatis mutandis, a craft of picture making. Its mental contents,
its gnoseological objects, are preferably iconic—that is, meaningful images. In short,
such a mind endeavors not to be polarized or torn between two different categories of
the same reality, like form and substance. It does not systematically operate through
dual oppositions: it prefers the bipolarity of both ‘‘A and B’’ to the radically polarized
‘‘A or B.’’ Therefore, it remains on a more global level. In every aspect of its cultural and
political life, Byzantium tried to keep this intermediary way. Heated debates lasted
for centuries all around the Byzantine dower to address critical issues about the con-
stitutive unity of soma-psyché (brain-mind, body-soul, flesh-spirit) and its operative
modalities, although the debate took place predominantly in a religious domain. Nev-
ertheless, three main anthropological points were identified and vigorously discussed:
person, face, and will. The apparent realism of this culture leads a modern Russian
scholar, Oleg Klimkov (2001), to call it ‘‘Christian materialism.’’ This peculiar material-
ism is most likely the best hidden but forgotten secret of Byzantium.

Antiquity’s Paradigm: Dualism

Deeply influenced by the debates in modern dualism about substances, we seem

unwilling to conceive of the human individual as a finite (and as such, not self-
sustaining) spatiotemporal or psychophysical unity. A person is seen as an accidental
juxtaposition of a passive material extended substance (res extensa) and a subtle cogni-
tive immaterial one (res cogitans). The most difficult task seems to be to determine how
and why the ghost (namely, the soul) gets into the machine (the body). It is the merit
of the Anglo-American cognitive neurosciences to move away from such an uncom-
fortable position. Their apparent anthropological monism focuses attention on the
material or physical pole of this binomial problem. Matter is understood today as an
agglomerate of small parts or particles, or as network of their structures. Such small par-
ticles, either wave-particles or chords, are not understood as massive objects, and can
hardly be considered as material, like for example, some hard stones. The cognitive
and intellectual faculties are said to be dynamic processes and functional properties of
such an agency. Such a position, however, differs from other academic traditions of
modern neuroscience, and also from the monistic position elaborated in Byzantium as
a solution to anthropological dualism.

Body-Soul: The Unsolved Problem

Celsius tells us that Hippocrates, in the fourth century B.C., separated medicine and
philosophy. Until the Hippocratic book On Sacred Disease, medicine was holistic
and reflected a rather monistic anthropology. Subsequently, ‘‘the partition between
168 Antoine Courban

somatic and psychological diseases, the triumph of dualism and the emergence of the
Stoic theory on passions as soul’s diseases are major events’’2 of our civilization deeply
rooted in the Mediterranean world. Already at the time of Alcmeon of Crotona (c. 520–
c. 450 B.C.), remarking on the importance of the brain in nervous and mental func-
tions as well as the permanent and extreme mobility of the soul (named from aiólos,
Eolos, personified wind; cf., e.g., ‘‘aeolian energy’’) was commonplace. Antiquity, too,
reflected Plato’s dichotomy between the intelligible and the sensible worlds. Such
ontological duality was both intellectually conceived and ethically perceived. Moral
judgment is the heart of dualism: the split arises as matter is seen as less valuable
than spirit. It is sometimes seen as bad and even demonized. According to such ideas,
the body is the soul’s prison. Therefore, the soul exists prior to its corporeal envelope
and is embodied or incorporated because of some dysfunction, error, or guilt. It was
accepted that the soul ‘‘falls’’ into its miserable prison. The soul’s permanent mobility
revealed its desire for liberation.
Aristotle’s De Anima shaped scholarly opinions about body-soul relations, when the
Greek master formulated a criterion that allowed one to discover whether or not
the human soul is separable from the body. He states that ‘‘if the soul performs any
activity totally independent of the body, then its substance too must be separable
from any corporeal reality.’’3 This statement centers on Aristotle’s concept of sub-
stance; it has traveled throughout Western culture, and can be considered the oldest
formulation of what is called today the brain-mind problem, or in its more general
framework, the ‘‘ontology of consciousness.’’ Influenced by Semitic realism, Byzantine
culture kept a suspicious distance from the notion of substance, which is a central idea
in any dualistic anthropology.

From Chaos to Human

The cultural scene at the end of antiquity, when a new religion emerged in the Medi-
terranean world and a new capital of the Roman Empire was founded, was dominated
by Hellenic views about reality that reflected the assumed dichotomy between sensible
and intelligible worlds. Within the universe, all beings are said to exist either at ran-
dom or by necessity. Regular behavior of nature ( physis) as well as the incomprehensi-
ble arbitrariness of chance (týchē) are both immanent in reality. They are the pillars of
natural causality that dominates and submits to its absolute and indisputable power all
that exist: gods and humans, animals and things. The French scholar Adolphe Gesche
(1993) interprets both physis and týchē as ruling and steering the emergence ( génesis)
of reality. They do not procreate reality from nothingness. Instead, they pull it from
the unbegotten primitive chaos ( próton cháos) according to an inner need, an imma-
nent mechanism of pure and ‘‘blind necessity’’ (anánche), ‘‘without any intervention
of an intelligence, a god, or a craft (téchne).’’4
Why One Is Not Another 169

Technical causality remains accidental, conventional, and artificial. Commonly seen

on an inferior level under natural causality (physis, týchē, anánche), craft (téchne) can
only consist in an imitative and artificial repetition (mı́mesis) of less value than natural
anánche. Whatever humans may do, we are always governed by such a necessity or
fatum, in which we are totally immersed. Human nature and freedom are not symmet-
rical in meaning. Only in the ethical and political realms are humans able to attain
some degree of culture-expressing freedom. We must snatch this freedom from the
gods in a titanic and Promethean project where, in a constant eddy of guilt, we risk
falling into hybris or immoderate excess. In this case, a terrible némesis provokes the
raging of natural forces against us.

A Cosmic Soul
On this basic theme, different theories were developed. For the Stoic philosophy of
late antiquity, physis/nature was progressively assimilated to the soul of the universe
(anima mundi), the pneuma of a macrocosm conceived as some huge organism. The
fundamental unity of this cosmic entity is reflected in a permanent regularity, an im-
manent law, a lógos spermatikós that rules the entire reality and predetermines the
whole course of its events. This is destiny (fatum). It contains all the seeds of individual
fates, the lógoi spermatikoı̀ that will precisely fulfill the function of Plato’s intelligible
Ideas. This theory was later to please Augustine (354–430), who with the utmost re-
spect translated lógoi spermatikoı̀ as rationes seminales (seminal reasons). Created by
God all at once, they are to appear in due season, each when its appropriate time
(kairós) comes in the way that God had ordained. As a distant echo of these Augusti-
nian ideas, Bonaventure (1221–1274) and Malebranche (1638–1715) later professed
that, since creation was completed in its first instant, nothing new will ever appear
independently of that creative act.

Puzzling Unity of the Binomial Soma-Psyché

Besides providing their reflections on cosmology, the Greeks developed important
views concerning mental faculties. Chiefly in the Platonic line of thought, intellect
was frequently understood as being passive and its development was perceived as the
successive contemplative discovering of preexisting intellectual relationships. Although
conflicting with the concept of free will, this nonactivity pervaded the most general
academic view of intellect. In the twentieth century, Jean Piaget (1896–1980) in Eu-
rope and, on a more local level, Christfried Jakob (1866–1956) in South America broke
with this scholarly tradition. Aristotle understood psyché (incorrectly translated as ‘‘the
soul’’ in the Jewish-Christian meaning) as the form of a substance that preexists in
Plato’s intelligible world, prior to its incorporation or descent into a somatic envelope,
the physical body. During this embodiment process, the rational soul and its three
170 Antoine Courban

faculties (imagination, reason, memory) are completed by the irrational soul (sensa-
tion, desire, temper). Two major conceptions primarily explained the origin of the
individual soul. For the Stoics it was a spark of the anima mundi, while for the Neo-
Platonists it was an emanation of an original consolidating unity, some godhead or di-
vine principle (hénad). The relation of the mind to ‘‘mental mass’’ is similar, differing
mainly in the interpretation of the latter. Thus, a human being remains a microcosm, a
reproduction on a lesser scale of the macrocosm. The anthropology of late antiquity
was therefore rigorously dualistic, with mind conceived of as a spark or an emanation
of what is not itself the body. These ideas were shared with variations by prominent
scholars such as Posidonius of Apamea (c. 135–50 B.C.), Cicero (106–43 B.C.), the great
physician and philosopher Galen of Pergamon (c. 131–c. 201), and Plotinus (c. 203–
270), and were later to permeate the Kaballah, a central body of scholarship incorporat-
ing the teachings of many contemporary followers of this tradition.
The ‘‘unity’’ in this scenario created several notorious puzzles, primarily concerning
memories and the possibility of their inscription on some material support. Ever since
Plato, explanations of episodic memories have required some nonmental material sup-
port, now called engrams. As a matter of fact such support has never been found. The
modern views concerning mental development have made it hardly plausible that the
recovery from amnesia, for example, could depend on the possible restitution of such
old, erased cerebral traces. During late antiquity, the unity and coherence of the bino-
mial entity soma-psyché is addressed with many theories that consider the individual
pneuma as some unifying principle. In fact, considering the body and all its compo-
nents as a tool for the soul, Galen understood pneuma to be the soul’s first organ
( próton órganon), a view that in itself is compatible with dualism as well as with the
nonreductive, genuine monism found in some current developments of neurobiology
(e.g., Jacob’s tradition discussed in chapters 11 and 12). In the West the dualist con-
cepts dominated anthropology. In contrast, the Byzantine culture developed a striking
divergence between monism and dualism.

On the Other Side of the Mirror

When Christian thought spread throughout the Roman Empire, this new religion soon
confronted the cultural environment of Hellenism. A scholarly work by Jaroslav Peli-
kan (1993, 368) shows how the momentous encounter between Christian thought
and Greek philosophy reached a high point in fourth-century Byzantium, where the
principal actors were four Greek-speaking scholars, the so-called Cappadocian Fathers
or simply the Cappadocians.5 Due to their immense achievements, Christianity was
able to acquire some of the Hellenistic cultural heritage of antiquity in a selective man-
ner. The impact of major new concepts, as they were introduced by Semitic culture,
had such a deep cultural influence that Byzantine society denigrated the term Hellenes
Why One Is Not Another 171

(i.e., Greeks) to qualify what it called the ‘‘ancient errors’’ and, as I mentioned earlier,
used for itself exclusively the name ‘‘Romans.’’ It is unfortunate that the controversies
of that time are rarely familiar to the educated public of today.

The Central Issue: Human Freedom

For centuries, scholars as well as political and religious authorities quarreled on reli-
gious grounds about the person of Jesus of Nazareth, understood as a dual human-
divine composite. In the background of these debates stand anthropological issues of
the utmost importance, such as the place of humans in the universe and in relation
to nature, the status of corporeality, the brain-mind connection or soma-psyché link,
and the steady constitutive coherence of each individual human being despite the du-
ality and heterogeneity of his or her ontological structure. The most critical of these
issues is indeed the ability of the human mind to judge and decide; this is the reality
of human individual freedom and, ultimately, human normative responsibility. It is
puzzling to notice how religious controversies about christology took place during
centuries in Byzantium within an atmosphere of extreme violence, sometimes civil
wars and bloodshed. But when the outcome of a controversy is the constitutive free-
dom of human beings, no one would be surprised to see the active role that any polit-
ical power might play in the context of this quarrel. Such a feature may not be ignored
in the context of neuroscience, especially for the assessment of its presumably neutral
results. Michel Foucault (1975) has ably reminded us that coercive power is being
exerted mainly over the corporeality of human beings, their bodies. In other words, an-
thropology is also a major political statement, regardless of whether the human image
is philosophically conceived or scientifically built. Byzantium’s history and its so-called
Byzantine quarrels paradoxically illustrate this situation.

Semitic Realism and the Reversal of Anthropology

Reflecting on the conceptual innovations introduced by Semitic culture, one would
immediately think about the advent of monotheism. However, the idea of a single
and unique god was not foreign to the Hellenic mind. The real cultural innovation
concerned two topics: humankind and reality. Due to the Judeo-Christian influence
on Greek culture, the idea of substance and the idea of necessity were progressively
revisited and new meanings were given to them. The Semitic cultural contribution
introduced a trichotomic or tripolar anthropological conception. There are three
polarities in humans: body/flesh (bâsâr), soul/psyché (nephesh), and spirit (rúah). For a
Semitic mind, there can hardly be a distinction between these three topics, and the
Bible’s anthropology may look rather ambiguous or lacking in rigorous differentiations.
The Semitic concept of soul (nephesh) denotes all that has life and breathes. The word
is applied to humans and animals alike, either collectively or with distinctions. It has
become a central topic that allows one to distinguish between the living and the dead,
172 Antoine Courban

though it was not developed in order to distinguish between two specific living enti-
ties, ‘‘one’’ and ‘‘another.’’ Yet nephesh is not seen, in an Aristotelian way, as a form
of some substance, and its Semitic meaning was soon to split into the Greek psyché.
For the Semitic mind, nephesh/psyché also refers to ‘‘selfness’’ or ‘‘sameness,’’ always
positively conceived, that is, whose nonalterity or nonotherness is taken for granted
from the very fact of its existence. For example, in Arabic—a cousin of Hebrew—psyché
connotes al nafs (Ar. ). This word is used to speak about the deepest and most sub-
jective aspects of one’s individuality. The modern Arabic expression ana nafsi (Ar.
) translates into ‘‘me myself,’’ but its precise transliteration is ‘‘me-my-soul,’’
where ‘‘soul’’ is the most accurate reference for a specific living individual.

Unbreakable Wholeness of the Human Being

The Hebrew tradition did not understand humans other than in terms of an unbreak-
able wholeness, a global and yet specific individuality. A holistic unity of body, soul,
and spirit always refers to a person. This unity is ‘‘his’’ or ‘‘her’’ bâsâr-nephesh-rúah,
one single subject that is expressed alike in the terms of soul and spirit. ‘‘Yet, these
terms are not exact synonyms. Neither, however, can one infer a dualism between
some higher self and lower self from the use of the terms’’ (Anderson 1982, 208). In
this view, the constitution of a person as soul and body is hardly understood without
the foundation of rúah. But the influence of dualism was too strong and the tripolar
Semitic conception led to a controversy between trichotomists and dichotomists,
both influenced by the Hellenic dualistic tradition. Dichotomists view humans as
consisting of two different substances enigmatically linked: a body and a soul-spirit.
Trichotomists view also humans as involving a juxtaposition of different substances
uneasily joined together: a soma-psyché and a spirit. Appolinaris of Laodicea,6 in the
fourth century, understood the soul as being the intermediary between body and spirit,
thus playing the role of the Stoic pneuma as a principle of unity and coherence. Prob-
lems emerged because the concepts (body, soul, spirit) became determinative of ontol-
ogy, so that the ‘‘being’’ of the human person was expected to be derived from analytic
reasoning. Sooner or later, and due to heated debates about the unity, in Jesus of Naz-
areth, of divine and human nature, a new concept emerged, the ‘‘hypostatic union.’’
We will encounter hypostasis further below, in the meaning that one cannot separate
the divinity and the humanity of this person into different ‘‘compartments.’’ In any
case, radical ‘‘trichotomism’’ had been rejected at a church meeting held in Constanti-
nople in the middle of the sixth century. It took a long time to establish a clear distinc-
tion between ‘‘duality’’ of being, where a modality of differentiation is constituted as a
fundamental unity, and ‘‘dualism’’ that essentially works against such unity. As Emil
Brunner (1939, 373) says perceptively, ‘‘Ontologically, man is a unity. Phenomenolog-
ically, mind and nature, and specially mind and body are to be clearly distinguished.’’
Why One Is Not Another 173

This observation is addressed below in the section ‘‘A New Vision of Human Beings:
Person and Face.’’

Crossing through the Mirror

Common to Judaism and Christianity, although more specific to the latter, a new con-
cept, ‘‘incarnation,’’ entered Hellenistic culture. Incarnation referred to Jesus of Naza-
reth, understood as a human and divine composite. The relations between the visible
and the invisible were no longer seen as ruled by the classical ‘‘incorporation’’ process
(embodiment) but rather by the event of ‘‘incarnation.’’ Matter no longer incorporates/
embodies the subtle soul/spirit, nor is it the spirit/soul that grasps the material flesh to
take over a specific physical body. In common people, the soul was presumably created
in relationship with a constant continuing parcel of nature, which in its biographical
sequence adopts a variety of biological organizations. Given the special circumstance
of Jesus (namely, his divine attributes), his presumed ontic kernel assumes a mind-
body unity that already possesses mind-body relationships. In the context of such
mind-body relationships, that ‘‘soul hunting’’ is now transformed into ‘‘flesh grasp-
ing’’ refers to the biological occurrence of a specific individual than to any different
one. Souls were no longer ‘‘falling’’ into bodies but the exact opposite situation occurs:
flesh/matter is now ‘‘ascending’’ toward the spirit. The direction of movement between
the visible and the invisible is totally inverted. By assuming such a reversal, the cultural
imagination of that time achieved something similar to Alice in Wonderland. It crossed
to the other side of the mirror and undertook a new description of the world. There,
the human being was understood as a ‘‘living soul’’ and a ‘‘psychic body’’ (‘‘emp-
syched’’ in Aristotle’s terminology), and not perceived as a pure subtle evanescent
form, or an intelligible idea caught in some material prison like a ‘‘caged animal.’’ The
body has now become the home of a free soul, and is no longer viewed as its jail. Sim-
ilarly, conceptions of reality, nature, and humankind were also deeply transformed.
Progressively, Mediterranean scholars built a new Weltanschauung that affected their
culture until the Scholastic intervention of the thirteenth century, which allowed
Western Europe to move in a new direction and reshape its cultural identity. This new
framework deeply affected medical assumptions concerning the brain-mind problem
and assumptions about the place of humans in the world.

The Brain-Mind Problem and Byzantine Medicine

The period during which anthropology was reformulated (from approximately the
fourth to the seventh centuries) is known as the ‘‘patristic era.’’ Some of the scholars
who introduced the new conceptions were religious thinkers and are referred to as the
‘‘church fathers’’ of Christianity, or simply the ‘‘fathers.’’ In a culture where nobody
174 Antoine Courban

could have envisaged a separation between religion and civil society, many of these
church fathers held high ecclesiastical offices. I should mention that these were edu-
cated men who mastered the classical culture of antiquity, and also its science, espe-
cially with regard to medicine. Some of them were physicians, like Nemesius of Emesa
(floruit late in the fourth century), or they studied medicine, like Gregory of Nyssa
(c. 340–394). Most of these scholars, if not all, based their arguments on medical
science or medical practice. The brain-mind issue was a familiar and commonly dis-
cussed topic in medical literature. A modern reader would be surprised to notice the
constant presence of philosophical considerations in Byzantine medical literature.
This fact prefigured what Xavier Zubiri proclaimed: ‘‘Metaphysics that is not physical
enough would cease to be what it is and converts to logic and phenomenology.’’7
The emergence of Christianity did not put an end to medical developments in
Byzantium or later in the Islamic word. In addition to specific Christian philanthropy,
the sociomedical outcome of the new anthropology and its focus on the psychophysi-
cal wholeness and selfness of a human being led to the creation, in the fourth century,
of a health-care institution, the nosokomeion or hospital,8 where monks and nuns
attended to the care of patients and physicians practiced healing. This formula proved
successful throughout the empire, and beyond. Additional caretaking institutions were
also implemented,9 with a deep influence on Arab-Islamic civilization.10

Medicine and Dualism

Although creative and successful in its social dimension, Byzantine medicine did not
improve medical science and research. It remained faithful to Galen and Hippocrates.
In a way, we might say that it did not ‘‘cross through the mirror’’ and remained under
the influence of Hellenic dualism. Most likely, it could not integrate the Semitic under-
standing of soul, because of its estrangement from philosophy, especially on the
grounds of the soul’s disease. For example, I have always been puzzled by the dis-
tinction made between melancholia and acedia. Both terms refer to a depressive state,
more or less severe and obscurely related to the body. For Byzantine as well as for Arab
medicine, melancholia is a general term used to speak about mental illness. Acedia (Gk:
akedia (a+khdía), literally meaning ‘‘without care’’: the don’t-care feeling, sloth) is rather
a specific medical term indicating what we now call thoracic pain due to gastroesopha-
geal reflux, which might be avoided by standing upright or seated after meals instead
of ‘‘not-caring’’ and lying down. This is the point, and here brain-mind relationships—
or rather the outlook of the patient—become relevant. Preferring to lay down, not
caring about the medical problem of reflux, is precisely what brings the thoracic pain
about. Thus, Byzantine culture used acedia in spirituality to speak about one of the
seven deadly or capital sins, often defined as spiritual laziness, putting off what God
asks you to do, or not doing it at all because of blindness to the present good. Thomas
Aquinas (1225–1274), in his Summa Theologica (II–II, 35), summarized the doctrine as
Why One Is Not Another 175

being as much Christian as Rabbinic and Muslim, by calling acedia sadness in the face
of some spiritual good one has to achieve. Thus, while melancholy was seen as a dis-
ease, a disturbance in the harmony of the Hippocratic bodily humors, acedia was con-
sidered more specific to the soul. Stoic philosophy had already elaborated on this topic,
building a medical theory that understands such diseases of the soul as passions. The
theory is in perfect harmony with Aristotle’s assertion that disease is a state of mobility
while health is a quiet state.11 Medical care of the soul (cura animarum) was now dele-
gated to religious circles. Still today, and especially in the Dower of Byzantium,12 mo-
nastic life is understood as a specific therapy for the soul’s mobility and diseases.

The Anthropological Turning Point

The transfer of authority for care of the soul from medicine to religion did not lessen
the interest of Byzantine physicians and scholars in the brain-mind issue. They exten-
sively discussed the nature of the soul, its relation to the Stoic pneuma and to body,
as well as the localization of psychic or mental functions in the nervous system. Some
of the church fathers opposed the discussion of these matters. Some scholars, such as
Origen of Alexandria (c. 182–c. 253), accepted the preexistence of souls. The promi-
nent Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 335–390) writes about ‘‘us who are captives of the
earth . . . and clothed with the denseness of this flesh.’’13 An eloquent writer—and one
of the most influential scholars in this field—was Nemesius (late fourth century),
physician and bishop of Emesa,14 with his treatise De natura hominis. The entire third
chapter is devoted to the union of body and soul. He accepted Galen’s anatomical and
physiological ideas and localized the three aforementioned faculties of the soul in the
three alleged known cerebral ventricles.15 Another physician, Posidonius, undertook
experimental studies on the nervous system around 390 in order to localize mental
functions.16 Apparently he did not succeed. The most significant figure in the scientific
turning point was John Philoponus (c. 490–575),17 an eminent but little-known repre-
sentative of Alexandria’s school. He discussed important brain-mind issues in his
Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima (Verbeke 1985, 451–470). Commenting on the
aforementioned famous Aristotelian causal criterion, ‘‘if the soul performs any activity
totally independent of the body, then its substance, too, must be separable from
any corporeal reality,’’ Philoponus answered the Master: ‘‘If the soul is incorporeal,
the pneuma is so to speak its first home, but if it is corporeal it is identical with the
pneuma.’’18 This was probably the most explicit turning point. It echoed Ephraim
the Syrian (c. 306–c. 373), ‘‘see by experience that the soul only exists completely in
the body.’’19 We arrive here at an issue of the utmost importance: the ‘‘soul/psyché/
mind/nephesh/spirit/self’’ is inseparable from a physical body; it is unable to exist
without a special relationship to its bodily structures. In other words, this culture un-
derstood the unity of human individuals, their deepest ‘‘self,’’ the essence of their iden-
tity, as a specific psychophysical finitude. This is probably what the human ontology
176 Antoine Courban

of consciousness looked like when seen from the other side of the mirror. Centuries
later, commenting on the influence of Gabriel Marcel in The Phenomenology of Per-
ception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty would declare: ‘‘I am my body.’’20 Such a modern
statement, though insufficiently detailed, would have sounded very familiar and unex-
ceptional to Byzantine scholars.

A New Vision of Reality

At the very heart of this emerging new Weltanschauung are key concepts that I will
now address, primarily the Byzantine perspective on nature and causality. As for an
ontology of humans, the core concept relates to person in its internal mode of union.

Metamorphosis of the View of Nature: Tà Pánta

The history of ideas in late antiquity is, therefore, full of novel articulations. Even pass-
ing most of them up, here it is a must to make out the developments that changed key
concepts such as nature, substance, causality, and especially person. A renovated idea
of nature appeared in early patristic times. In its elaboration, the traditional word
physis, which designated the world in a holistic way, gradually became inadequate to
account for the new outlook on nature. Which technical word did replace the old
name, physis? Byzantine authors of the period preferred to speak of tà pánta or ‘‘All-
Things.’’ With that expression, the emphasis shifted away from the uniformity of the
world toward the multiplicity of what is or exists. The term nature or physis thus no
longer denoted the inherent character of the world as a whole; instead it referred to a
particular ousı́a or ‘‘substance.’’ Rather than using physis to designate a shared mode of
being, the authors of the period were stressing that reality is made of many physei
(Pelikan 1993, 81). Each component of reality and, a fortiori, every living being was
therefore understood as constituted by a particular nature/substance. Yet these signifi-
cant semantic changes did not bring agreement in interpretation. Heated theological
quarrels shook the Byzantine world, particularly around the concepts of physis, ousı́a,
and prosópon. These quarrels left an imprint on the Mediterranean Orient that persists

Mode of Union
With the aim of providing the brain-mind problem with a satisfactory solution, espe-
cially in the context of debates surrounding Jesus of Nazareth, several general councils
were convened to try to reach a consensus on the definition of a person. The most im-
portant of the councils was one held in Chalcedon in 451. While recognizing that any
other human has a single specific nature, the council proclaimed the hypostatic union
of Jesus of Nazareth as ‘‘two natures in a single person.’’ Apolinaris of Laodicea misun-
derstood this interpretation by failing to recognize that hypostatic union must not be
Why One Is Not Another 177

understood as a union of soul and body. Rather, its correct interpretation is as a union
of the divine nature with another component of human nature. The latter component,
in turn, consists of both a body and a unique psyché, which, through such a body,
interacts with nature.

Orders of Reality
The most noteworthy aspect of this line of development is the growing distance from
the Aristotelian concept of substance. Reality, globally seen, in this way is necessarily
viewed as comprising a multiplicity of natures distributed on more than one order of
1. The order of such a reality that is eternal—that is, without beginning or end. This
order of reality is ascribed to the eternal Lógos.
2. The order of temporal reality, that of tà pánta or All-Things. Inside of it, a reality of
personal type and an impersonal reality may be distinguished. Each thing in this order
of reality features a characteristic lógos. A number of quandaries, of course, originated in
this exclusive attribution of the reality of personal type to the order of temporal reality.
Through these conceptual tools it is also possible to grasp what other key ideas de-
note, such as cósmos and aitı́a (cause). The articulation of those tools was to generate a
true revolution of concepts such as causality and personal reality. In fact, while natural
causality used to be understood as equivalent to the idea of necessity—so that in con-
trast, the imaginative and resourceful technical causality was seen as accidental—the
new worldview was to overturn this conception. Here, technical causality was set
before natural causality (téchne before anánche). It was understood that the eternal
order of reality is that of technical causality, now seemingly more akin to the Lógos.
Technical causality, therefore, came to be understood as the cause and foundation of
All-Things. It becomes easy to understand why Byzantine culture, either secular or
religious, always referred to the Lógos as the sole ruler of everything, or Pantocrator.
Within All-Things, and inside every being or thing, the two types of causality
(anánche and téchne) exist in different degrees. This bipolarity of temporal reality
implies a dynamic tension that may be termed becoming. Within temporal reality,
namely, the reality that becomes, persons are individualities that manifest closest to
poles of technical causality, made up of imagination, inventiveness, creativity, and es-
pecially will. This explains how freedom is constitutive to persons—although freedom,
of course, is not unbound by its surrounding circumstances.

A New Vision of Human Beings: Person and Face

Undoubtedly, the concept of person has a long history of development. Its actual mean-
ing seems so obvious to us, yet it took many centuries to conceptualize an acceptable
178 Antoine Courban

understanding of the obvious. Inherited from Greco-Latin antiquity, it was first ac-
cepted by Christian culture, and then remodeled through different periods of secular-
ization that are constitutive of Western European culture. Etymologically, the word
persona belongs to the Roman legal realm and its theatrical practice of philosophy. It
first designated, in a theater, the actor’s mask before acquiring the specific legal mean-
ing that Cicero gives to it in his De officis. Many scholars establish a strict symmetry
between the Latin persona and the Greek prosópon, which may also refer to a mask
worn by an actor playing a character on the stage. Yet, as Florence Dupont (2003, 39)
observes, even though these terms refer to similar objects, they do not have the same
meaning. Speaking about the Roman actor, she understands him via the theatrical
persona, as being a faceless or featureless orator (orateur sans visage). The prosópon is
understood by Dominique Lecourt to hide the actor’s own face in order to substitute
the features of the specific character portrayed. The Latin persona does not achieve the
same substitution regarding personality features. It tends to be conceived instead as a
megaphone—as suggested by its etymology, per-sonare. Regardless of the specific nature
of the theatrical practices, the Latin mind preferred to reveal a specific behavior by
hiding the actor’s features, thus unveiling a certain way of being of the character por-
trayed. The Greek mind was more concerned with the specific identity of that char-
acter. This is a crucial cultural difference between the two parts of the Mediterranean

The Knowing Points: Hic and Ibi

A specific identity is the starting point of being someone. It is a featured reality situated
‘‘here’’ (hic). From this ‘‘point’’—this ‘‘here’’—a specific individuality exists, can be
known, and can acquire knowledge. This situated ‘‘point’’ (Goethe spoke of Mittel-
punkt), which is an existential ‘‘here,’’ is related to, but not the same as, its space-time
circumstance. In Byzantine culture, this source owing to which one is oneself, or
endowing the nephesh with ‘‘selfness’’ or ‘‘sameness,’’ is always positive. Since the
concrete nephesh under consideration is already existent, its nonalterity is taken for
granted.21 Therefore, this same individuality is acknowledged as its own existence and
not merely an echo, to be found anywhere ‘‘there’’ (ibi). In this regard, concerning a
character’s identity, the Hellenic mind is mainly interested in ‘‘what it is’’ and ‘‘what
it looks like,’’ whereas the Latin mind would focus more on ‘‘what it does.’’ This shad-
ing in meanings seems significant for understanding some of the differences between
Eastern and Western perceptions and their respective comprehension of a given reality.
According to Dupont,22 one might say that Atreus’ persona (mask), iratus Atreus, is not
the specific prosópon (face) of a furious and angry man named Atreus, but rather the
very features of a general behavior called anger (ira). Even though the prosópon, or
face, is not the whole of a personal reality, it nevertheless both discloses and hides
Why One Is Not Another 179

that same reality, which is the essence of the human being. As Lecourt shows, the
Roman jurists used the word persona in a general or universal way. The term did not
refer to a specific individual but rather was useful to legally attribute to that person a
social part in the civil codex they invented. This is apparently why until the modern
era, a person and an individual were not, lexically speaking, the same thing. It is inter-
esting to quote Boetius’ (sixth century) definition of a person as ‘‘individual substance
of rational nature.’’ It can be found in his Liber de persona et duabus naturis, and had a
striking influence on Western culture. Aristotle’s concept of substance is indeed the
central issue of Boetius’ definition. Aquinas later focused on this ‘‘rational nature’’ of
human substance. In his conceptualization, which on the realism-nominalism spec-
trum qualifies as moderately realist, human nature consisted in being a person. This
task can rationally be achieved only by total submission to natural law that emanates
directly from God. The concept of autonomy elaborated by the Enlightenment rejected
this sort of submission to God’s will, although it upheld under natural law the con-
cept of person and the subject of modernity, and recognized its physical and moral

The Ground of Reality According to Maximus

Most scholars will agree that Maximus of Constantinople, also known as the Confes-
sor, was the most prolific representative of the perspective that largely shaped the Byz-
antine mind. Undoubtedly, he was the most prominent thinker in Byzantine culture.
Maximus achieved a brilliant synthesis of patristic thought, which although not
unique in Byzantine culture, was probably the most complete and most accurate syn-
thesis of views on ontology and anthropology as well as on mind and body.

Valorization of Motion
At the core of our topic is a famous sequence, dear to Origen, who utilized the follow-
ing conceptual series to account for the passing into existence: stasis, kinesis, génesis.
Origen attempted to show that the ontological passing into existence is a movement,
a perturbation of the original motionless state (stasis). In contrast, the new Weltan-
schauung, as reflected in the natural sciences, was soon to transform this sequence
into génesis, kı́nesis, stasis. Now, the passing into existence (contemporary physicists
speak of microphysical particles enacted by a vacuum) is an act. This applies to hu-
man spirit, too. The positive source endowing the concrete nephesh with ‘‘selfness’’ or
‘‘sameness’’ is the enactment of this act. Passing into existence is no longer conceived
as the perturbation of a motionless state. Existence (génesis) is in itself a dynamic
(kı́nesis) process of becoming, which tends toward a pole of permanent state of fulfill-
ment (stasis).
180 Antoine Courban

Indivisible Unity of Nature and Will

This reversal was not achieved in Origen’s time but some four centuries later. The
reversal was the life’s work of Maximus, whose tormented days were an unrelenting
struggle against the Monothelite heresy. Monothelites wished to find a formula of
compromise, by affirming that Jesus of Nazareth certainly had two natures, but one
single will. Monotheletism dissociated the will from nature exactly as Aristotle distin-
guished form from substance. Maximus went to the extreme of giving his life in order
to affirm the indivisible unity of flesh and will: the nature that constitutes the will and
thereby freedom. For Maximus, inasmuch as Jesus of Nazareth was a hypostatic union
of two natures, clearly Jesus was also a hypostatic union of two wills. This is what was
at the stake in Maximus’ outlook, as expressed in two of his writings from early adult-
hood, probably composed sometime between 630 and 634: Ambigua ad Ioannem and
Quaestiones ad Thalassium. Although Maximus’ vocabulary is extremely difficult, I will
present a short summary, closely following the analyses made by Dalmais (1952), Pon-
soye and Larchet (1992), and especially Larchet (1996a, 1996b).

Lógos and Lógoi

Acording to Maximus, Lógos is eternal, the cause of All-Things, and the source and
purpose of every entity. The bosom of the Lógos recapitulates everything that exists,
namely, All-Things. Lógos is ‘‘the union of what is determined and what is not deter-
mined, of the measured and the immense, of the limited and the unbound . . . of repose
and motion.’’23 Each existing reality has in its individual nature a lógos. The lógos of a
being is its principle, its nature, what defines it, and what distinctively characterizes it.
But lógos is also the finality of such a being: that in view of which such a being exists.
In sum, it is the entity’s raison d’être in a double sense, of source and also of purpose for
its being rather that not being. Maximus takes special care to make us see that these lógoi
radically differ from Platonic Ideas and, above all, should not be taken as the Aristotelian
forms, different from the material substance that such forms are supposed to shape.

Passing into Existence: Becoming

Every entity is enacted by its own specific principle or topic lógos, which defines its na-
ture, its ‘‘being’’ or essence, (from esse, being). But, the same entity is also defined by a
dynamic lógos, which conditions its passing into existence.24 In other words, Maxi-
mus’ logoı̈ radically differ, not only from the lógos physikós or physical lógos, but also
from Platonic Ideas and from the Stoics’ lógoi spermatikoi. This allows one to better
understand the Maximian sequence:
Génesis. Eclosion of the particular lógos framed in its temporal horizon—that is, in
its kairós (opportunity). Here, this enactment of existence is the outgrowth either of
technical causality or of the creative will of the eternal Lógos.
Why One Is Not Another 181

Kı́nesis. Movement of existence, or becoming. The cause of this movement or of this
becoming is a temporal sequence where the future acts on the present. This idea ac-
ceptable to Platonisms is being shared by some modern physicists who use concepts
such as futur antérieur (Constantin de Charrière) or advanced action (Wheeler and Feyn-
man 1949), claiming that back action is caused by advanced waves propagating back-
ward in time from the future absorption of the radiation. John G. Cramer (1986) has
developed a ‘‘transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics,’’ and the notion is
also embraced by Huw Price (1996), Peter Holland (1995), Mariela Szirko (2005), and
others. This anticipative cause is found, too, in the eternal Lógos.
Stasis. Repose by fulfillment of the project or by realization of the model.

Enacting the Lógoi

The lógoi of the particular entities are manifestations of the Lógos’ will and are not par-
ticles of divine essences. Rather than sparkles of the divine intellect, they are ‘‘voli-
tions,’’ ‘‘voluntary acts,’’ or ‘‘grains of alterity.’’ This is why, as we will see below with
Gregory Palamas, the essence of God is to be clearly distinguished from his uncreated
energies. The preexistence of all lógoi in the Lógos means the profound unity of all
entities in their principle, and likewise, every entity that exists or is about to exist pos-
sesses a specific and particular lógos. As a result, both the diversity of All-Things and
the particularity of every entity are grounded in the eternal Lógos. This interpretation
by Maximus, where he valued every particular entity, thoroughly contrasts both with
Plato’s model, where the particular appears as a derivative, degenerate form of the uni-
versal (Ideas or Essences), and with the model of Origen, who—under the influence of
Neoplatonism—saw the multiplicity of rational entities as resulting from a dispersion
or decomposition of a supposed original hénad.

Unity as the Ground of Diversity

For Maximus unity and diversity coexist inside every same reality: the Lógos is pres-
ent in the multiple lógoi, the multiple lógoi are grounded at their foundation in the
Lógos.25 The coming to exist, in the physical instant, is an eclosion and every eclosion
possesses a temporal horizon, a kairós, which is its own. For Maximus, repose could
not be the primitive condition of temporal realities. A priori, only God is immutable;
everything that exists is essentially mobile. Motion ensues the passing into existence.
In contrast, Origenists see motion, in contrast to the primitive condition of repose, as
an act of decomposition. For Maximus, movement and temporality are ontologically
featured by nondivine entities. This allows for finitudes to have a beginning. Even
when a human being reaches a condition of repose by ‘‘filling the space that separates
the lógos of its beginnng from the lógos of its end,’’26 such a human does not decrease
his or her condition of ‘‘repose in perpetual motion’’ (aiekinètos stasis).27 Amazingly,
182 Antoine Courban

this is what happens to Alice on the other side of the mirror: she feels she must keep
running in order to remain in the same place.

The Exploration of Will: Lógos and Trópos

If the Lógos, for Maximus, does work as a sort of principle of nature, this does not ren-
der the world a gigantic automatic mechanism, with everything rigorously determined.
This is prevented inasmuch as each personal lógos or principle does its work tied to the
trópos or mode.28 Jean-Claude Larchet (1996b, 143) counted seventy occurrences of the
dyad lógos-trópos in the two writings by Maximus mentioned above. While the lógos
defines the nature of an entity, this entity’s trópos is the fact of its hypostasis: a fact
that manifests its capacity of self-determination. This means the possibility for every-
one of living in conformity with his or her lógos, namely as per his or her nature, or
in opposition to his or her lógos and contra nature. This scenario frames and poses
the problem of will.
To account for free will, Maximus used several concepts, frequently difficult to tell
apart. For a summary assessment, I would say that he showed that what we call ‘‘will’’
may be understood as having different connotations, including gnomè, thélesis, and the-
léma. Gnomè is the disposition of nature toward self-determination. Thélesis, in con-
trast, is the actual capacity of the individual to work out voluntary choices. Maximus
also utilized the term theléma to denote the individuation of the thélesis or the gnomè.
By this ability of individuation, Maximus seemed to open the way for existential tem-
porality. In his view, being (einai) belongs to human by nature and is related to one’s
lógos, whereas proper being (eu eı́nai)29 is related to, or rather predisposes toward,30
one’s free will.31 The latter is a tributary of one’s hypostasis and related to one’s trópos.
The lógos of human nature is originally disposed to this being proper,32 but is not de-
termined. The attainment of wellness is a work of the particular human being, enacted
when he or she decides to live by the idea of good, namely, in harmony with one’s
moral conscience.

Stakes of Anthropological Monism: The Palamite Controversy

The idea of the indissoluble unity of the human being had considerable impact on
the ensuing developments in Byzantine culture. As an example, I will briefly address
the ‘‘Palamite Controversy,’’33 deployed in the fourteenth century and decided in a
council convened in Constantinople in 1341. The subject of this controversy was the
body. It consisted in ascertaining whether the physical body participated in prayer,
or if prayer is a meditative entreaty of the soul. Protagonists included on one side the
hesychast monks, led by Gregory Palamas (1296–1359),34 and on the other side
scholar Barlaam of Calabria (1290–1348). The hesychast monks had been affirming
Why One Is Not Another 183

that, because of their way of living, they were able to achieve a state of permanent
prayer (hesychia35) engulfing their whole being—body and soul together. In such a
state, these men reported experiences that, to our modern eyes, might be categorized
as out-of-body experiences. They claimed to see an intense light, which they inter-
preted as the uncreated energy of God present within every reality that is regarded as
finite. This should be distinguished from the Western mystical ecstasy, which some-
how typically withdrew from contemplation any sensible experience that a person
can have in such state. For hesychasts, in contrast, the state of permanent prayer in
no way was passive, and it did not block sensory-perceptual activity. In other words, it
was understood that the sensible faculties of the body are not an obstacle for the con-
sciousness that one might achieve about God in his energies. The hesychasts36 clearly
distinguished between God’s essence, unknowable and not-participable, and the
uncreated energies of God deemed present in everything that exists. This is why such
energies were considered knowable and participable by way of sensible experience.
Barlaam’s critiques against the hesychasts, together with the replies contributed by
Gregory Palamas, represent an important moment in the history of ideas—a moment
that helps to clarify what distinguishes the Mediterranean Orient from the Occident.
At bottom, Barlaam spoke in the name of a dualist anthropology.37 The arguments he
utilized can only be comprehended within the framework of the controversy that
ensued at the same time in the nominalism/realism debate concerning the issue of uni-
versals. Gregory Palamas expressed himself in the name of a genuinely monist anthro-
pology, and consequently could not have excluded the body from the state of prayer.
In his view, the noetic and discursive faculties of humans express themselves while the
body continues to function. Such simultaneity was rejected by Barlaam. The quarrel
was of a religious nature, but the outline of the controversy interests us here because
the council held in Constantinople condemned Barlaam in 1341 and officially adopted
the standpoint of his adversary, Gregory Palamas. This decision shaped the Byzantine
world, some decades before the end of the Eastern Roman Empire, and in some ways
displaced dualism in favor of two positions that are central to this discussion: anthro-
pological monism, and the proclamation of the presence of God’s uncreated energies
in every thing and every entity of ta pánta. Such ‘‘uncreated energies,’’ in Palamas’s
terms, are similar to Maximus’ lógoi and, in the Byzantine view, are responsible for
what makes ‘‘one not another’’—to allude to the title of this chapter.

Synthesis: Understanding the Byzantine Ontology of Consciousness

Without accounting for all the data in the Barlaam-Palamas argument, I have at-
tempted to demonstrate the essential variables for the topic of this book, the ontology
of consciousness. It is now time to employ a modern vocabulary to summarize the
184 Antoine Courban

essential points of the preceding discussion. Mindful of technical language from early
theological developments, a specific outlook on reality and human beings can be por-
trayed and rendered into present-day language:

1. There is a reality without a beginning and without an end. This includes the specific
domain of pure consciousness. One may call it God if this concept seems convenient.
This self-consciousness is not a mathematical formula, it is an enactment, and that is
why all causality in this domain is technical, in the sense of creativeness, or an expres-
sion of free will. This can be restated by stating that the domain of consciousness is
also personal.
2. There is another order of multiple realities, each of them having a starting point
grounded in the previous one. This can be described as the domain of ‘‘progressive sen-
tience’’ or ‘‘becoming consciousness.’’ These ontological agencies can undergo inner
development, yet they are not arranged on a vertical or ladder-shaped axis. This order
of reality is dynamic and causality in this domain is diversified. It goes from blind
deterministic necessity to free will. Natural causality does not steer everything. Living
and mindful creatures are less subordinate to it than solely mineral materials.
If these multiple realities are to be understood ‘‘vertically,’’ they emerge from each
other in a continuous transformative process (‘‘procession’’) steered by some law of ne-
cessity. Time is a general continuous frame for such a process. From this point of view,
‘‘one’’ and ‘‘another’’ are synonyms in a temporal sequence.
When such realities are to be seen ‘‘horizontally,’’ each of them is rooted by its own
ontological principle—its Maximian lógos—in the eternal Lógos. This would exclude
any transformation, but would imply a vision where the very notion of evolution is
an evolution of individual time and not of some morphological sequence. Time is dis-
continuous, and there is a gap, a hiatus between each sentient agency. This is why
‘‘one’’ is not ‘‘another,’’ in the case of fully sentient and fully self-conscious physical

Sailing to Byzantium
Byzantine culture sounds like an anachronism to modern ears. It is worth revisiting
with modern eyes and vocabulary. Under the ashes of obsolete Neoplatonist vocabu-
lary one can see reality with different eyes, and be surprised by the hidden modernity
of Byzantine culture and its amazing realizations that are in perfect harmony with cur-
rent perspectives on consciousness. Here, one can notice to which extent the senses are
ontologically active and participate in shaping a moral world. This has been eloquently
stated by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) in his famous poem Sailing to Byzantium:38
THAT is no country for old men . . .
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Why One Is Not Another 185

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.


Influenced by Semitic realism, Byzantine culture kept a suspicious distance from the
Aristotelian notion of substance, which is a central idea in any dualistic anthropology.
In the Eastern Imperium Romanorum (Basileia Romaion, Bilad al Rum), an interesting
historical merger of Latin legalism, Hellenic intellectualism, and Semitic realism took
place. The first tradition defined individuals primarily by their social roles; the second
emphasized their common features; and the third stressed a concrete, fleshed personal
unity. In this regard, Semitic realism counterbalanced the other two. However, in
the context of the theme of this discussion—‘‘Why one is not another’’—it holds the
creation hypothesis of each entity sufficient enough to tell how and why the ghost
(namely, the soul) gets into the machine (i.e., the body). This view could definitely
not have been narrow enough to cast creation history as a mere record of interactive
brain-mind exchanges. The process of disengaging from Platonist assumptions was
slow—indeed millennarian—and chiefly achieved by two first-rate scholars, Maximus
of Constantinople, or the Confessor, and Gregory Palamas, who without throwing out
any essential element, articulated an indisputable anthropological monism. They may
have left the process incomplete, though their thinking was no less advanced than
some approaches to brain-mind issues in contemporary universities.


I would like to express my deep gratitude to the abbot and monks of the Benedictine Monastery of
Chevetogne in Belgium, who welcomed me so that I could prepare this chapter. My thanks go es-
pecially to the librarian the Reverend Antoine Lambrechts who let me consult freely the priceless
collections of his scriptorium, and to the Reverend Michel Van Parys, director of the review Iréni-
kon, for his valuable counseling in patrological issues. I am also indebted to Assad Kattan from
Balamand University in Lebanon for his help in understanding Maximus’s concept of human
will. I also thank Amale Dibo from the American University of Beirut. She kindly agreed to read
my original manuscript in both French and English versions.

1. See the section ‘‘Thinking in Images’’ in Carruthers 2003, 72–77.

2. Pigeaud (2004, 697–702), trans. Antoine Courban.

3. From Aristotle’s De Anima, I, 1, 403 a 3–10; quoted in Verbeke 1985, 454.

186 Antoine Courban

4. Gesche (1993, 59), translated from the French by Antoine Courban.

5. After a region in what is now southeast Turkey called Cappadocia. Jaroslav Pelikan (1993, 160–
177) describes four Cappadocians, the two brothers Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, to-
gether with their sister and teacher Macrina, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus.

6. Apollinaris of Laodicea was one of the most brilliant scholars of the fourth century. He cer-
tainly was the first to formulate correctly what is known as the ‘‘chrisotological problem’’—that
is, the rational understanding of the relations between human and divine natures in the individ-
ual Jesus of Nazareth. His teachings were condemned at the Second Ecumenical Council held
in Constantinople in 381. He was the first to formulate the central argument by stating that two
perfect principles cannot become one, thus allowing a better understanding—to be achieved at
the Council of Chalcedon—of the irreducible wholeness of what a person is.

7. This is in fact a statement made by Ignacio Ellacuria and reproduced by Xavier Zubiri. Quoted
from Secretan et al. 2002, 67; translated from the French by Antoine Courban.

8. The creation of the hospital may be traced to Basil, bishop of Caesarea, who in 375 imple-
mented the first known nosokomeion within the walls of a public inn or xenodocheion. He engaged
monks and nuns in his jurisdiction to take care of sick people. This measure is considered to be
the basis of the medical professions.

9. A network of such public institutions existed in Byzantium: ptochiia for the poorest, orphanotro-
phia for orphans, brephotrophia for abandoned children, gerontokomia for older people, and so on.
See Lichtenhaeler 1973 and Miller 1997.

10. For further references see Issa 1981; Samiraı̈ 1990; Hunke 1960.

11. Aristote, Problèmes, VII, 4 (ed. Louis, p. 124); quoted in Grmek 1996, 219.

12. In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus, a Byzantine monk of the dualist tradition, carefully
classified such diseases of the soul and wrote about their healing. His nosology is still extremely
popular in Eastern monastic circles. It lists the following diseases: Philautia (self-love), Gastri-
margia (gluttony), lust, Philargyria-Pleonexia (cupidity-meanness), sadness, Akedia (sloth), anger,
fear, Kenodoxia (vanity), and pride. See Larchet 2000, 845–848.

13. Quoted in Ellverson 1981, 27.

14. The modern city of Homs, on the Orontes river in today’s northern Syria.

15. See Outes et al. 1981–1984: This ancient connection contributes to the conceptual itinerary of
Western neuropsychiatry. It is astonishing how the monk Chalcidius was able to access the neuro-
psychological knowledge acquired by Alcmeon eight centuries earlier. This knowledge differs, in
some essential respects, from the views of Aristotle and other subsequent physician-naturalists.
The conceptual path of Chalcidius situates him in a project most likely initiated by Ossius of Cor-
doba, who achieved an integral synthesis of human knowledge about nature. What is of relevance
here is the theory of ventricular pneumatism: memory is localized in the posterior ventricle, imag-
ination in the middle chamber, and sensation in the anterior one. Arabic medicine will abun-
dantly elaborate on this theory, as the work of Razi and Ibn Baja demonstrates.
Why One Is Not Another 187

16. Lewy and Landesberg 1847, 1848. Quoted in Symposium on Byzantine Medicine, Dumbarton
Oaks Papers, XXXVIII (1984, xii). See also Temkin 1931, 268–270.

17. It is not well established if he practiced medicine or ever studied it, although he was a profes-
sor of literature in Alexandria ( grammatikos). A Neoplatonist who adopted the Christian religion,
he was condemned by his colleagues for criticizing Proclus and Aristotle on the eternity of
the universe. Due to historiography and his conversion to Christianity, he was accused of being
opportunistic shortly after the Emperor Justinian closed Athens’ philosophical school in 529.
Richard Sorabji (1998) notes: ‘‘In dynamics, the idea of an impetus, which in its medieval context
has been hailed as a scientific revolution, can be seen to have traveled by an Arabic route from the
sixth-century commentator Philoponus. Galileo in his early works mentions Philoponus more
often than he mentions Plato. And Brentano in the nineteenth century got from the commentary
tradition, and not from Aristotle himself, his idea that all activity in the mind is directed towards
intentional objects.’’ See also McKenna 1997, 157.

18. Cited in Todd’s communication, quoted from Symposium on Byzantine Medicine (1984, 108).

19. Ephraim the Syrian, Nisibean Hymn 11:4. Quoted in Papademetriou, n.d.; http://www.new-

20. English translation by Colin Smith (1981, 203). Merleau-Ponty adds that ‘‘the theory of
the body schema is, implicitly, a theory of perception’’ (p. 206) in which ‘‘our own body is in the
world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life
into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’’ (p. 203).

21. See Ávila and Crocco 1996. It thus does not appear to differ from what makes it ‘‘not an-
other’’—that is, the enactment of this creation is different in each case, exemplified in chapter
12, where nonalterity is not automatically taken for granted (because nonexistent existentialities
are also considered). Therefore, in each enactment, a special determination is focused. With such a
focus, the spatiotemporal circumstance denotes a determination that points to or reveals the exis-
tential here, which is called oneself.

22. Lecourt 2004, 857–859. I follow Dominique Lecourt through the whole discussion of this
issue about the person.

23. Ponsoye and Larchet 1992, 10–13, translated from French by Antoine Courban.

24. Qu. LX, PG 90, 625A, LS2 81. Some readers may want to know that all Patristic texts are cited,
after Larchet 1996a and 1996b, from the Jacques-Paul Migne Collection. Qu. stands for Quaestiones
ad Thalassium, followed by the number of the question in Roman numerals; PG stands for Patrolo-
gia Graeca, followed by the volume number, page number, letters of columns, and line numbers.

25. Quoted in Ponsoye and Larchet 1992, 12.

26. Ponsoye and Larchet 1992, 13.

27. Qu. LIX, PG 90, 608D, LS2 53, and Qu. LXV, PG 90, 760A, LS2 285.

28. On lógos-trópos according to Maximus, see Sherwood 1955, 164–168.

188 Antoine Courban

29. Qu. XXXV, PG 90, 380AB, LS 241.

30. Qu. LV, PG 90, 545BC, LS1 495.

31. Qu. II, PG 90, 272B, LS1 51.

32. Qu. XL, PG 90, 396A, LS1 267.

33. See the following entries in the Oxford Dictionnary of Byzantium (Kazdan and Talbot 1991):
‘‘Barlaam of Calabria,’’ ‘‘Palamas Gregory,’’ ‘‘Palamism,’’ ‘‘Hesychasm,’’ and ‘‘Hesychia.’’

34. Kazdan and Talbot 1991, 1560.

35. Kazdan and Talbot 1991, 924.

36. Kazdan and Talbot 1991, 923.

37. Kazdan and Talbot 1991, 257.

38. Quoted from The Literature Network; http://www.online-literature.com/yeats/781/. This poem

is considered one of the masterpieces of the Irish poet. It was first published in 1927 in Yeats’s
collection October Blast, when he was in his sixties.


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6 Soul and Paideia: On the Philosophical Value of a Dialectical

Michael Polemis


In classical Greek philosophy, especially for Plato and Aristotle, the notion of soul is a necessary
and constituent part of human life that manifests itself in the actualization of a dialectical
relation between philosophos bios (Gk: jilósojov bíov, philosophical life) and arete (Gk: a+a2eth́,
virtue). Reflecting on Platonic and Aristotelian descriptions of soul, and incorporating the later
interpretation of this notion in Christianity, philosophers continue to discuss soul throughout
modernity. Yet, this same notion of soul has been tempered by events of history—for example,
in Hegelian idealism, with its attempt to undermine the traditional Kantian theory of knowledge
that continued this trend toward apory about the place of soul within the flow of history.
Consequently, the traditional notion of paideia (Gk: paideı́a, education) ceased to remain a
meaningful category for education, by undermining the ability of individuals to construct an
effective subjective identity and to comprehend history. In this chapter I demonstrate how the
traditionally philosophical ideal that unified soul and paideia has lost its appeal and scientific
value, and I assess the ethical consequences of this pragmatic shift for future attempts to educate
humanity. An analysis of this philosophical process clearly indicates the conditions leading to
the demise of soul in philosophy—nevertheless, there are genuine options for philosophers to
rehabilitate the concept of soul.


Reminiscence resides within language and contains psyché (cuwh̀, cool breath of
life), which is imperturbable breath conjoint with menos (ménov, a vigorous force
of life). The term ménov shares its etymological Indo-European root with the term man
(male or human) and describes the same manic vitality that is attributed to the fury of
humans. In the Greek language, this human quality is associated with our ability to
turn things upside down. Accordingly, ‘‘anthropos’’ (a6ny2opov, human) is derived
from anatrepo (a+nat2épo, overturn) and describes the human capacity to act in a head-
over-heels manner.
194 Michael Polemis

This same reference to raging vitality is also contained in the other Indo-European
root of the word psyché, namely, soul. The soul can be associated with two vital ele-
ments, one originating in water (sea) while the other is associated with air in motion
(wind). The origin of soul traces back to the fury and vitality of Aiolos, the King of
Winds (Ai6 olov), whom the ancient Greeks associated with the celerity of air currents
akin to three additional symbols: the velocity of a bird of prey in capturing knowledge
(often a falcon, iÔ e2ax), the divine (iÔ e2ón), and the other majestic bird of prey, the eagle
(a+etóv). All three constitute a symbol of eternity and incorporate knowledge for eons of
eternity (a+eí), while at the same time residing next to a ghastly god of death ( A ; ïdhv) in
his capacity of bearing eternal knowledge of the Great Divide.
It is precisely this knowledge of death that constitutes an essential element in
Greek philosophy concerning our comprehension of the concept of soul. Philosophy
becomes the means of combating thanatos and one can assert cum grano salis that pai-
deia (paideı́a, education) represents the contribution of Greek culture toward mastery
over death. This prevalence is most visible in Platonic-Aristotelian philosophy and
forms the intellectual basis for consecutive generations of philosophers to overcome
death. In this context, the battle against death is primarily a battle toward eternity.
The subtle difference between these two forms of combat is most vividly presented in
Plato’s ‘‘magnum opus,’’ where the masterly philosopher demonstrates between the
lines of his dialectical discourse the suggestive nuances of his philosophical lan-
guage that enable a reader to hear whispers of eternity. Plato’s serene allusion to eter-
nity is embedded in multiple coherent schemata of interpretation that reinforce
each other in a constant flux of inspiration. The absence of a static concept of
cosmos or soul adds to the charm of Plato’s perpetual dialogue, which strives to attain
knowledge of eternity and his desire to engage the other, and himself, in an eternal

Genesis and Transcendence

More than any other of the Platonic dialogues, Phaedo displays a unique demonstra-
tion of the two primary motifs in the philosopher’s battle against death: genesis from
opposites and the transcendence of ideas. Both motifs are discussed extensively at dif-
ferent locations of the corpus Platonicum, but only in Phaedo do we find a systematic
assessment of the two motifs in their relation to the concept of soul. Plato has in part
inherited these motifs from earlier Indo-European traditions, and has in part inaugu-
rated novel ideas toward comprehending eternity that continue to be meaningful con-
cepts in a continuous historical unfolding of ideas.
The first motif originates in Plato’s concept of dialectics as teaching through opposi-
tion. The gestation of a thing or object from its opposite is reflected, for example, in
the contrasting and codependent evolution of small things that must come from large
Soul and Paideia 195

ones, which in return become smaller (Phaedo 70d–71e). This same cycle also applies to
Plato’s presupposition that living comes from no other source than the dead, and
death comes from the living in a process of eternal recurrence that is reflective of
growth from decline and vice versa.
Insofar as this motif can be presented as a general theme of discourse, one can derive
from it an overall life principle, a world soul that is an immanent and constituent ele-
ment of cosmos. Such an objective-idealistic concept of soul is typical of Plato’s philos-
ophy and appears consistently through all his works, including his late dialogue, Laws.
In the dialogue Laws, Plato describes the concept of an imminent perpetual motion
holding together the entire cosmos as a spinning celestial disk, which is reflective of
his assertion about a world soul embedded in the unity of opposition (Laws X, 897a–
898d). He expands on this idea in Phaedo when he modifies his objectively idealistic
concept of the soul. It is also here that Plato introduces the second primary motif in
relation to the unity of opposites: the transcendental nature of concepts that is inher-
ent in his theory of forms.
The preexistence of soul is part of Plato’s theory of remembrance that constitutes an
aspect of his theory of forms (Phaedo 72b–e). All life comes into existence out of qui-
etus, according to the principle of opposites; therefore Plato claims that the soul must
continue to live, even after bodily death, in order to return to life. Plato has already
introduced the concept of individual soul earlier in the text (71e–72a), but his refer-
ences to a sort of creation of soul from its opposite, death, appear slightly inept. This
blurred vision of the soul seems to occur primarily when Plato develops the concept of
immortal individual souls in contrast to death. For example, he explains that although
bodies and souls are not eternal, they are nonetheless indestructible: ‘‘for if either of
them had been destroyed there would have been no generation of living beings’’
(Laws X, 904a5–904b1). This passage demonstrates Plato’s emphasis on body and soul
as an ontological principle that is couched in the language of universals, as long as one
maintains the soul’s difference from ideas that manifest as particulars instead of con-
crete universals; conversely, Aristotle objects in the Metaphysics (A 9, M 4–5) that such
entelechial interpretation of a process-oriented dynamic ontogenesis of reality is not
acceptable.1 It can be argued that this Aristotelian critique starts with false premises
by incorrectly placing Plato’s ideas into a realm of atopon (a6topon, incongruity) to allow
for empiricist explanations of concrete universals, but this is a different matter not di-
rectly related to the scope of this chapter, since it relates to one of the more arcane her-
meneutic passages in the interpretation of Aristotle’s work. While any attempt to grasp
the Platonic concept of soul within the parameter of a singular individual soul is
bound to fail, one can indeed find such caesural transformation in the Christian soul.
Plato’s concept of the soul remains ambivalent with reference to the contrast between
universal and particular soul—the same ambivalence is found in the Platonic concept
of God (as the demiurge who acts communally and represents reason in primary and
196 Michael Polemis

secondary motion of a perpetual flux, Laws XII, 966e). The Christian concept of soul
evolves from this ambivalent interpretation in favor of a clearly defined individual soul.
Any remaining traces of Platonism had been eliminated from Christian doctrine pri-
marily through the help of Greek clergy in their attempt to purge Origenian interpreta-
tions of the soul once and for all from their teachings. The climax of this project was
reached at the fifth ecumenical synod of Constantinople at the time of Emperor Justi-
nian. Here, the Platonic concept of a preexisting soul, along with other doctrines that
had to this point remained active due to Origen’s work, was now eliminated from theo-
logical dogma. This final coup removed all Platonic elements from the concept of soul,
which was now unfathomably characterized in accord with the Christian belief in the
creation of humankind. Henceforth, the concept of individual souls is deprived of any
empyrean grounding—this we find confirmed later in modernism when Kierkegaard
eloquently analyzes the concept of sin—and the grave presupposition for its existence
is found in the abyss of nothingness (see chapter 14).
All subsequent attempts by theologians to explain the origin of individual souls were
in vain; creationism, traducianism, generationism, and similar attempts to overcome
this transcendental dilemma did not succeed. Christian theologians declared that
Origen’s doctrine of the soul’s preexistence was a heresy primarily on the basis of a sur-
real yet forceful argument, namely, that the lack of any memory of earlier stages of
one’s soul supposedly demonstrates the fallibility of such belief. Consequently, Plato’s
concept of paideia was also revised and subjected to interpretations more suitable to
Christian doctrine. While paideia was still seen as a path toward acquiring virtue,
its meaning, nonetheless, had been transformed.
The theological transformation of paideia originated in a suppression of the philo-
sophical nature of Plato’s ambivalent concept of eros (e62ov). I am referring to the am-
bivalence that attributes to eros a role as mediator (Symposium 201d–204c). This dual
character of eros—as mediator who spans the chasm between ignorance and truthful
philosophical knowledge—is known in the history of European philosophy as a veiled
metaphor for the negative force contained in all sentient life. This arcane power of
thought originates in a dialectical structuring of reality toward its self-sustaining pres-
ence. Plato describes this process in his Seventh Epistle (342 c–d) as ‘‘a blaze kindled by
a leaping spark,’’ while Hegel solemnly declares it to be the impressive power of the
negative that is the force of sentience, namely, a pure self (Phenomenology of Spirit, p.
21). This principle of negativity is the Truth of eros; it is the very center of Europe’s
paideia tradition.
For Plato, eros is the negative force that brings insight and mediates between the
unknowable transcendentality of the dynamic power of concepts on which the onto-
logical and cosmological reality of paideia (or of ‘‘idea’’) rest. Both the inseparable
knowledge and one’s awareness of it become the enigma for all sentient life. They are
Soul and Paideia 197

also the very subject of philosophical discourse about truth and virtue that allow one
to recognize the indivisible creative powers that reside in the dialectical process of
sentience to unite eros with one’s own divine nature. Such an individual is akin to the
Platonic God to which Plato refers only in analogies, with intentional vagueness, for
the purpose of illustrating the divine nature of philosophical discourse.
According to Plato, the dual nature of eros is mediated through the concept of indi-
vidual soul. Eros represents a force that is external to human nature and that is myste-
riously derived from the nature of cosmos, as well as a genuine property of individual
souls. Plato argues that a person can comprehend truth only through this mediating
force of eros, which is ultimately the privilege of philosophical reflection.
Aristotle maintains the etymological classification of Plato’s ontology when he differ-
entiates between intellectual virtues (dianoia, rational thought) and moral virtues (ethi-
kos, character), and places the latter in the context of proper habituation that indirectly
is found in the elitist character of the term paideia. For Plato, the ideal of achieving
both bios philosophikos (bíov jilosoji0óv, philosophical life) and bios theoretikos (bíov
yeo2hti0óv, life of contemplation) is reached by only a few sentient beings. Aristotle
accepts Plato’s division of sophia (sojía, wisdom) and sophrosune (soj2osúnh, temper-
ance) and reinforces the culturally binding ontology that is derived from habituation
and skeptical assessment of the concept of individual soul (Nicomachean Ethics II, 1–2).

The Transformation of Eros

The theologians’ categorical rejection of Origen’s Neoplatonic teachings about the pre-
existence of individual souls so radically distorted the ancient concept of individual
soul that it was rendered outside its original Hellenistic scope. It is paradoxical that
the Christian distortion of Plato’s thought took place in the context of a theological
doctrine that supported a metaphysical claim for the existence of individual souls on
the basis of divine exhalation.2 In spite of this metaphysical support, or perhaps be-
cause of it, the concept of individual soul became a controversial and, at the same
time, radical Christian denominator of a person’s unique existence, especially if this
concept was used as the basis of self-reflection and self-awareness and was opposed to
the Socratic dialectical-dialogical search for the roots and meaning of self-identity.
Socrates is undoubtedly an icon in the history of philosophy, with his uncompro-
mising search for introspection in full awareness that there is absolutely nothing in
the world that can give us assurance about one’s claims for truth except one’s own af-
firmation of life and one’s joyous search for the good in spite of the constant presence
of a merciless death. In contrast, Christianity dwells in the fear of sin; the concept of
individual soul is associated with God’s mercy and one is frightened more of sin than
of death, since sin is a rejection of mercy and the consequence of eternal damnation is
198 Michael Polemis

more frightening than the prospect of finite death (‘‘So I tell you this: every sin and
every slander can be forgiven, except slander spoken against the Spirit; that will not
be forgiven’’; Mt 12:31).
In this overall context, the value and meaning of eros became transformed. While
Plato saw as the highest ideal one’s search for knowledge and truth, Christianity
preaches love. While Socrates condemned injustice and located the power of justice in
the laws of the Greek polis, Christianity engages in an ambivalent relationship between
the gospel and the power of states as the supreme measure of moral authority, as indi-
cated in the Pauline Epistles, while assuming a superior role beyond the state as medi-
ator of human interaction. For example, the early Christian Letter to Diognet (5:5–10)
describes Christ in his fundamental solitude as paroikos (pá2oi0ov, sojourner) in the
world who overcomes his isolation by means of transcendence that helps him to un-
derstand the relation between political powers and the divine, just as St. Paul recog-
nized the dialectics between law-abiding citizenship and introspective liberation.
Thus, the meaning of eros has fundamentally changed, and with it also the meaning
of paideia. Christianity redefines eros in the context of agape, love for God, humans,
and cosmos; consequently, paideia no longer is associated with knowledge, but with
love. This means that eros is not seen as a means toward attaining knowledge; instead
its function as Christian agape has become the goal of knowledge. St. Augustine’s
motto amare amabam becomes the central force toward paideia for the Christian
West. No longer is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake a desirable virtue, as had
been proposed in ancient Greece (see Metaphysics A 2, 982b); instead knowledge has
been subordinated to love, and love is now the supreme form of knowledge. This goal
of Christianity presupposes that paideia is not merely a matter for philosophers, but is
available to all human beings. In fact, one can argue that all but philosophers are closer
to the Christian notion of love, since nonphilosophers will accept love as an uncondi-
tional principle without any intellectual reservation. This Christian interpretation of
truth utilizes the Platonic ideal of actuality and agency; however, it transforms eros
into agape. The transformation is reflected in the Christian concept of love for God as
ecstatic joy and in the entirely new vernacular of the so-called Neoplatonic clergy—for
example, with respect to the eroticism of the cosmos, which bears little resemblance to
philosophical Neoplatonism. A similar tendency toward eroticism is found in medieval
mystical traditions with the German mystics Mechthild (1207–1282) and Gertrud
(1255–1302). Both stress the importance of conjugal love with Christ in heaven on
the basis of beatific visions derived from sublime eroticism (see McDannell and Lang
1988, 100–107).
Regardless of this historical transformation of eros, its transition from knowledge to
agape presupposes a radically solitary individual soul that sees love as a result of God’s
grace. It is no longer Plato’s concept of the good that will help an individual soul to
Soul and Paideia 199

find redemption after death or to find—according to Aristotle—eudaimonia as a way

of life; instead, Christian redemption takes place through the grace of God as an act of
opaque love.3 One important aspect must be addressed here: in spite of essential differ-
ences in the interpretation of paideia from a classical point of view compared with a
Christian point of view, especially with reference to the preexistence of the soul, one
must recognize many similarities. As an example, neither tradition views paideia as a
utilitarian concept.
In the Western tradition, paideia is the unremitting path toward forming and edu-
cating one’s soul. During the pre-Christian era the soul shaped itself by means of phil-
osophical reflection on truth; later, the soul was seen as the highest good that brings
meaning and justification to one’s life. Although its loss is equal to perdition, all of
our personal efforts cannot guarantee a result, since the final judgment is delegated to
God. Even the most virtuous person does not automatically have a ticket to paradise;
paradoxically, we find in Lk 23:39–43 that the crucified robber who had asked Jesus
for mercy will be among the first to obtain eternal redemption. (This passage contains
a dramatic climax, since Jesus’s promise already is in effect for him that same day and
thus guarantees the robber a seamless transition to eternity.) In this context it is also
important to mention the difference between a dualistic concept of soul-body and the
tripartition of body-soul-spirit that attributes to the soul a bodily component in the
tradition of Origen. This tripartition differs from the concept of pneuma (pneuma, pure
spirit); however, it is also beyond the scope of this chapter to address the various her-
meneutic models of biblical interpretation and contrast them in an anthropological
study with theology.
Christianity reinforced the ancient Greek notion that the value of an individual
bearer of an indivisible soul is not determined by one’s temporal social status, but
rather, within the scheme of a larger ontological order. A person is to be seen against
the background of eternity—either by virtue of his or her position in eternity, or sim-
ply as an objectively idealized eternal being who, in spite of the cessation of life, still
remains immortal on the basis of his or her soul. This presupposition had been contin-
uously cherished by philosophers throughout the reign of religious dominance. The
Aristotelian concept of an objectively immortal soul has survived in spite of, and side
by side with, the Stoic materialistic interpretation of the soul, and it has remained a
valued concept throughout its opposition both in medieval times and throughout the
Arab enlightenment, from Avicenna and Spinoza to Leibniz and Hegel.
This tradition reinforced the importance of an eternal perspective: goodness is seen
within the context of eternity and not within the context of immediate gratification.
The value and dignity of humankind can only be determined sub specie aeternitatis. In
this context, one can come to understand the importance and value of irony within
Platonic philosophy. Socratic irony occurs if one assumes, for the sake of discovering
200 Michael Polemis

the truth, a position of ignorance or the acceptance of uncritical assumptions about

what is correct. During the discourse, then, the truthful and consequent application
of one’s presuppositions will soon lead to disavowal or ridicule.
Socrates cheerfully demonstrates the art of sophistry by the analogy of a fisherman
in the dialogue the Sophist (219d–233b). The deeper meaning of his playful rhetoric is
certainly found in Plato’s use of irony sub specie aeternitatis by utilizing the force of
negativity to start a dialectical process with reference to a mathematical difference,
derived from a contrast between truth and lack of truth, by subtracting untruth from
truth and the awareness that comes from the remaining position. This, in turn, opens
a small gap through which the reality of truth can shine. This dialectical principle was
practiced centuries before Hegelian logic and preceded its philosophical thrust; how-
ever, such an assessment can only take place in the context of eternity.
A similar irony can be found in evangelicalism when Christ was duped into making
statements that should have been harmful to him. Some of these rhetorical questions
were transformed through Christ’s replies into revealing statements about his accusers,
and Christ answers according to his rhetorical powers (Lk 20:1–8). The irony comes
into play through the classic double function of revealing untruth while at the same
time giving strength to the person who happens to be in the just but weaker position.
Thus we can also find within the tradition of philosophy of religion a manifestation of
a divine tragedy on earth. God, as incarnated logos, uses irony to oppose the represen-
tatives of political power in their questions about his competency. One could argue
that all four evangelical gospels are ironic fundamental scriptures reflective of human-
ity’s boundaries.
We meet this irony in its power of negativity once again at the beginning of moder-
nity in the great literary tradition of Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, all of whom
portray masterfully the human soul’s struggle when reflecting on its subjectivity that
is typical of the modern period. Following the literary examples of antiquity, the soul’s
primary purpose and motif continue to be its diabolical struggle for redemption and
self-affirmation. Dante (Paradiso, XXXIII:137–145) gives a beautiful demonstration by
fusing the Platonic concepts of paideia and eros that in their Christian interpretation
now become transformed—in accord with the Pauline tradition—into agape, and
describes with poetic metaphors a metaphysics of trinity as the only path for self-
reflection that is thought to unite the means and its end.
I wished to see how image joined to ring,
And how the one found place within the other.
Too feeble for such flights were my own wings;
My power now failed that phantasy sublime:
My will and my desire were both revolved,
Soul and Paideia 201

As in a wheel in even motion driven,

By Love, which moves the sun and other stars [trans. L. G. White].4

For both, St. Paul and the church fathers, love is the highest asset derived from grace
that guides a human soul to see itself and to attain a paradisiac vision of the divine,
which makes love ultimately no longer dependent on ourselves. Dante represented
the modern paideia interpretation in Christianity when he joined the agape-
transformed ancient Platonism together with the emphasis on subjectivity that
emerged from modernity, to form a new synthesis.
During the early Renaissance, Dante envisioned this synthesis of paideia with an
agape-transformed eros as the great new concept of modernity, but this unity was ulti-
mately defeated in a historical process giving rise to the idea of productivity and free-
dom, henceforth unleashing the powers of material productivity. A new Manichaean
turn signaled the radical decline of eroticism in the Christian-Platonic world as moder-
nity did away with the Augustinian unification of the history of salvation and world
history. Notwithstanding the attempts in philosophy to reinstate such unity, the pri-
mary concept of modernity became dualism. Philosophers attempted to overcome
this dualism, as seen in their philosophies of mind—from Descartes throughout
Kant—and Hegel did succeed with this task by overcoming epistemology itself, when
he formed the concept of subject from the substance of history, which could only be
seen as a place of evil. The concept of modernity unfolded with diabolical attributes
and its character was recognized consistently from Descartes to Kant, from Rousseau
to Hegel, and finally, from Nietzsche, as they all attempted to overcome the chasm of
cosmic reality that had been created through reason. By attributing supreme qualities
to reason, they attempted to forget the tragedy of the human condition, namely, its
imperfection in the light of reason. This condition is reinforced by our beliefs in tech-
nology and money, and by the fetish of productivity as a means toward autonomous
universal liberation. Such is the contemporary predicament for humankind, tethered
like Prometheus not only by the whimsy of the gods but also by our own limitations.
We must admit that, while we are at the dawn of a new century, we still face death,
injustice, poverty, and war.


The literal meaning of humankind remains diabolical, for it is, by definition, a constit-
uent part of diabolos to renounce both the primal unity of idea and resemblance, as
well as any concept of humanity and humanity itself, consequently rejecting the ne-
cessity for a divine nature of all existence. Such limitations constitute the extreme
boundaries in the tradition of identity philosophy, and have radically challenged in
modernity any attempts at defining subjective agency, ultimately leading either to its
202 Michael Polemis

current positivistic destruction by means of language analysis or to the postmodern

dissolution of reality.
Along with the notable philosophies of identity comes their inability to overcome
the demarcation of transcendental difference in constituting the subject with its own
systematic parameter that is suitable for the claims of reason, as well as the resuscita-
tion of the Sophists’ eristic disputation that Plato had eloquently delineated in Meno
(80e) and attempted to solve in his poignant maeutic (Meno 84c).5 The possibilities of
human knowledge remain tied up in the limitations of rational categories within time
and space. Antiquity did not succeed in reconciling subject and object to rekindle an
acerbity and disquietude of reason that gazes on its own limitations once again during
Any attempts to develop new philosophical themes by resorting to either scientific
models or obscure religious beliefs must ultimately fail, since no simplistic model of
ontology will ever ameliorate humankind’s perpetual contradiction and difference that
is akin to mediation in metamorphosis.


An earlier German version of this chapter was presented at the Twentieth World Congress of Phi-
losophy, Boston, August 8–16, 1998. I would like to thank Helmut Wautischer for his translation
and for his research to replace my German bibliography with English works.

1. Aristotle criticizes Plato’s concept of forms primarily on the grounds that Platonic forms result
in an unnecessary metaphysical doubling of reality, while at the same time leading to a method-
ological circulus vitiosus in the context of an alleged regressus ad infinitum that has become the
subject of numerous philosophical debates under the general aporia of the ‘‘third man.’’ This
aporia explores the necessity of assuming—ad infinitum—an ideal person who is simultaneously
form and appearance over and above any given form. Plato discusses this situation in Parmenides
(133a), where he develops further the dialectics of opposition to demonstrate that the forms
themselves cannot be thoughts, and thereby distances himself from the theory of forms. The con-
troversy between Plato’s theory of forms and Aristotle’s concept of entelechy centers around the
topos of identifying and explaining consciousness in the context of a relation between nature
and reason. Any philosophical novice without proper methodological training for understanding
ancient Greek philosophy might easily confuse the psychological dimension of consciousness
with its philosophical grounding. Thus, contrary to Aristotle’s entelechy, Plato’s theory of forms
is neither entelechial nor dynamic.

2. Although there are various interpretations to account for such exhalation, the concept of
divine intervention for the occurrence of the individual soul remains a constituent part of theo-
logical doctrine.

3. A precise comparison of the differences between Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant
theology in their interpretations of God’s grace exceeds the scope of this chapter.
Soul and Paideia 203

4. The Italian text is from the 1975 edition of the Bollingen Series LXXX, Princeton University

veder voleva come si convenne

l’imago al cerchio e come vi s’indova;

ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne:
[. . .]
A l’alta fantasia qui mancò possa;
ma già volgeva il mio disio e ’l velle,
sı̀ come rota ch’igualmente è mossa,
l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.

5. Socrates: ‘‘I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are intro-
ducing. You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that
which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if he not, he cannot;
for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.’’ . . .
Socrates: ‘‘But do you suppose that he would ever have enquired into or learned what he fancied
that he knew, though he was really ignorant of it, until he had fallen into perplexity under the
idea that he did not know, and had desired to know?’’ (Meno 80e, 84c, trans. Benjamin Jowett).


Aristotle (1966), Metaphysics, trans. Hippocrates G. Apostle, Bloomington, IN: Indiana University

——— (1985), Nichomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin, 2 vols., Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub-
lishing Company.

Dante Alighieri (1948), The Divine Comedy: Paradiso, trans. Lawrence Grant White, New York, NY:
Pantheon Books.

Hegel, George W. F. (1977), Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Arnold V. Miller, Oxford: Clarendon

McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang (1988), Heaven: A History, New Haven: Yale University

Meecham, Henry G. (1949), The Epistle to Diognetus, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Plato (1925), ‘‘Epistle VII,’’ in Levi A. Post, ed. and trans., Thirteen Epistles of Plato, pp. 61–113, Ox-
ford: Clarendon Press.

——— (1953), The Dialogues of Plato, ed. Benjamin Jowett, 4 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press.

The Revised English Bible with the Apocryphia (1989), New Rochelle, NY: Oxford University Press and
Cambridge University Press.
II Localizing Subjective Action
Any ontology of consciousness requires solid scientific grounding that is inclusive of
early culturally defined concepts of conscious action, while integrating these findings
into current theories of nature. Since consciousness research is being constantly
updated by all scientific fields, it becomes increasingly difficult to develop comprehen-
sive theories that are inclusive of empirical data from diverse disciplines without exces-
sive parsimony. As a given fact, if not by ontological necessity, conscious action
manifests itself within boundary variables, regardless of how minute or transient such
‘‘eclosions’’ appear. The action of minds presents itself both locally and nonlocally,
providing an electrifying tension that is described in this section.
The first four chapters in part II provide theoretical frameworks to address nonlocal
action and the relevance of relational dynamics for sequential mapping of events. Each
chapter does so from within the methodological boundaries of its research. An admit-
tedly bold, but at the same time beautiful, execution of empirical research in the neu-
rosciences brings data for a grand synthesis presented in the two chapters that follow.
A monistic theory that acommodates a dualistic interpretation appears to be an oxy-
moron, but succeds in transforming a palindrome from metaphor into fact.
A brief note on these two concluding chapters is needed. Crocco and Szirko present
their bold theory of universal mindful action in nature that is consistent with neuro-
electric research from Argentina. Their chapters have gone through an extensive
editing process with exemplary support from the authors. Nonetheless, readers are
encouraged to explore these pieces with an open mind. Their terminology is never ca-
sual, and the grammatical challenge of their chapters is not a variable of translation,
but is due to the necessity of breaking linguistic modalities of categorization to accom-
modate their findings about living systems.
7 Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind

Hubert Markl


This chapter hints at new answers to a set of functional questions. The ontology of the mind,
whatever its ultimate substance may be, diversifies into mental contents in whose making the
brain noticeably intervenes. This diversity can be safely assumed to have evolved by the process
of genetic variation and natural selection investigated in evolutionary theory. Why has the
human species developed this astounding capacity to maintain an internal theater full of images,
thoughts, conclusions, beliefs, prejudices, emotions, hopes, and anxieties, which we can conjure
up almost at will, yet can suppress only sporadically and with considerable effort? Why do we
have this capacity? What might it be good for? Can we see this remarkable variety of mental
contents as a special adaptation of our species? Is there a relationship between the evolution of
our conscious mind and our no-less-significant capability of developing symbolic language and
social systems characterized by common beliefs, knowledge, and the skills of a complex culture
handed on by learned tradition?
The question of why humans have developed a unique style of mental contents should be
answered according to the usual paradigm of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which tries to
elucidate how a complex trait under study could evolve by means of natural selection, and how
this contributes to the reproductive fitness of its bearers. Social intelligence is detailed, and
individualized knowledge of relationships, rank, and behavioral dispositions, along with
knowledge of the abilities of other group members, and with the rating of one’s own abilities to
reach desired goals in such a network of behavioral probabilities by acting immediately or with
deliberate delay, become the most vital, most crucial resources. Social intelligence generates one’s
ability to comprehend strategic action within a rule-conforming environment, such as the moves
in a game of chess where the present distribution of a game, along with possible future second-,
third-, fourth-, and nth-order moves and their consequences are assessed, for every decision that
the other player may make. Consciousness would thus become a virtual space for trying out
behavioral games, for checking outcomes in theory before trying them out in actuality. It may
decide for an individual whether he or she ends up successfully protected and well accepted in
the core of a social group or as a peripheral player—that is, an outcast in danger of being the first
target for predators and with reduced chance for replication of one’s genetic endowment.
210 Hubert Markl

The evolution of a conscious mind as tentatively described may have entered into one of those
autocatalytic, self-reinforcing relationships that so often in evolution are the hallmark of truly
novel achievements. It seems that the prelinguistic hominid brain1 developed a number of
capacities that can be regarded as prerequisite building blocks of the primate mind from which a
truly linguistic cognitive system could develop, maybe even rather late in the history of our own
species. Thus, while in primates intensive and frequent tactile communication through mutual
grooming is the most important mode of interpersonal communication for building cooperative
alliances and thus fostering social cohesion, these functions could have been partly but
advantageously taken up by refining language. The linkage between such a well-prepared brain
with a truly linguistic representational system must have produced more than communicative
putty to hold together societal networks. In fact, step by step it probably enriched the private
world of consciousness, that subjective interactive theater of world models in which an
individual could preenact and reenact games in order to adapt better to the complex social
reality where it actually had to perform in a public, shared conscious world. This enactment can
also occur in possible virtual fictitious worlds that can be represented as thought shared by
language. The capacity for consciousness and language would thus become mutually interlinked
in a self-reinforcing circle. Even though the idea of replacing grooming by talking in expanding
social groups may at first glance seem a bit simplistic and certainly not adequate to explain what
happened during that genetic and neurolinguistic jump from a protolinguistic brain to a brain
fully competent for human language, there is certainly a tertium comparationis of deeper
importance in this. Communities that use language as a common mental unity derive an
unmistakable and immutable linguistic identity. This cohesion binds the users of a language
together into a tightly knit special relationship for life, into which others who speak differently
and strangely—that is, the bárbaroi of the Greeks—can only intrude with much effort and often
not at all. Thus, language ‘‘opens’’ and ‘‘closes’’ the human mind: it opens the way to
communication of an unlimited richness of content and it closes groups against each other by
erecting linguistic boundaries of discommunication. The view of the world would change from
the day on which separate views of linguistically joined individuals of a social group could be
amalgamated, and from that time on, the world itself would never again be as before.

To Donald R. Griffin, mentor and friend—who dared


This chapter has been written in the spirit of Erasmus, the eminent European humanist
and illustrious scholar who, probably more than anyone else in his day, was able to
bridge the manifold chasms that have been, since earliest times, both the strength
and the predicament not only of the intellectual history of Europe, but also
Between ancient thinking and Christian thinking
Between Christian theology and a philosophy that no longer regarded itself as ancilla,
as handmaiden of the former
Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 211

Between the chauvinism of rising nations and the common intellectual heritage of
the Greco-Roman and Christian West
And above all, Erasmus represented the attempt to bridge the gap
Between devout belief and critical rationality, between clerical and secular reasoning
Who could better stand for the ideal goals of overcoming the ominous split of not
only C. P. Snow’s (1964) two cultures (i.e., natural sciences versus humanities), but of
cultures in general, than Erasmus, who lived and worked and influenced others in his
native Netherlands as well as throughout Europe, (especially England, Italy, Germany,
and Switzerland)? Who among all those towering medieval and Renaissance scholars
could more authentically stand also for the self-critical modern scientific mind than
this priest and son of a priest, this herald of religious tolerance and human rights based
on natural law who, nevertheless, wrote a whole book making fun of himself and
of pretentious scholarship while praising foolishness in his Encomion Moriae (Praise of
Folly) of 1511? And who, finally, could more aptly lend his name to a discussion of the
relationship between human language and the evolution of consciousness than this
man with deep knowledge of the linguistic foundations of European thinking? He
paved the way for a rationalistic, natural theology that provided the fertile ground for
that young bachelor of divinity, Charles Robert Darwin, who would later shake the
very foundations of our thinking about ourselves. This finally brings me back to my
‘‘Language and the evolution of the human mind’’ is a topic certainly large enough
to be associated with an Erasmus. But how can an animal behaviorist like myself, who
has devoted most of his working life as a researcher to the intricacies of the sensory
capabilities and communicative organization of social insects, dare to address such
uniquely human characteristics as language (writ large) and consciousness (writ even
The reason is similar to the way of thinking that invites linguists and psychologists
to pontificate about what animals are and do, or supposedly are not able to do, often
without ever having studied the actual behavior of even one of the beasts about which
they claim to know so much by pure introspection (actually not the worst way to learn
a lot about animals, I must admit). Different from such humanists, the student of ani-
mal behavior, on the other hand, does at least have the advantage of firsthand experi-
ence of actually being a conscious human person and of using language to convey his
or her thoughts and observations, and consequently might be qualified to ponder the
evolution of the human mind.
How urgently answers to these questions about the substance of our humanity and
about its roots in the animal kingdom are sought may be read from the two most
luxuriously flowering branches of the biosciences publishing business: the ‘‘Darwin
212 Hubert Markl

industry’’ and the ‘‘mind-body industry,’’ as I take the liberty of calling these most
impressive and laudable efforts, made by many of the best scholarly and scientific
minds. Daniel Dennett, the author of both Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s
Dangerous Idea (1995), is the undisputed master of both arts of intellectual enterprise.
Let me therefore also dabble in the murky waters filling the trenches between philo-
sophical quagmires, linguistic sand dunes, evolutionary rainforests, and the ethological

Clearing the Path for a Functional Question

In order not to be completely lost in this wilderness, I should specify from the outset
the things I will definitely not discuss. First, I will not address the question of what
man and woman really are in essence, as compared to all nonhuman animals (as if
these were unified by anything other than by not pertaining to our species). As far as
this fundamental question is concerned, I will be glad to leave it with the old Linnean
definition of that erect and mostly hairless primate ‘‘erect body, naked, scant hair con-
centrated in the remotest parts’’ (corpus erectum, nudum, pilis raris remotissimis adsper-
sum) as Linné put it in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae (1758, 21). However,
he recognizes as important among other characteristics: ‘‘animal that weeps, laughs,
sweetly sings, converses, can be trained, judges, admires . . . yet frail . . . of unreliable
character, stubborn hopes, lamentable life, belated wisdom’’ (animal flens, ridens, melo-
dum, loquens, docile, judicans, admirans, . . . sed fragile . . . precarii spiritus, pertinacis spei,
querulae vitae, tardae sapientae), while at the same time he maintains the notion of a
‘‘miracle of nature’’ (miraculum naturae), ‘‘Prince of Animals because of which the
whole nature was generated’’ (Animalium Princeps cuius causa cuncta genuit natura). For
the purpose of my discussion, humans are nothing but the members of a biological
species of primates, one of peculiar capabilities and often rather queer habits (includ-
ing the less-than-proper sense of the word). Thus, I am not addressing the question of
whether there are special spiritual qualities to our species. I am neither advocating nor
denying such concepts; rather, I am not exploring them because I do not feel qualified
to do so. Let me therefore only consider that part of the human being that can be
safely assumed to have evolved by the process of genetic variation and natural selec-
tion as assumed in Darwinian evolutionary theory.
Second, I will not try to join the hunt for the ivory unicorn (or the red herring) of
trying to answer the question of what ‘‘consciousness’’ as a reified entity really is. It
may well be that we only feel compelled to raise this question because by joining a
word to the inescapable self-evidence of conscious experiences, thoughts, desires, and
intentions (in addition to unconscious performances of our neural system), we cannot
but assume that there must be something to ‘‘consciousness.’’ To say it with Mephis-
topheles in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: ‘‘It’s just when sense is missing that
Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 213

a word appears’’ (. . . denn eben wo Begriffe fehlen, da stellt ein Wort zur rechten Zeit sich ein
(Goethe 1994, part 1, line 1995, p. 85)). To the great disappointment of my estimation
of Dennett’s (1995, 370) scholarship, where he finds it possible to write ‘‘This bon mot
appeared in the Tuft’s Daily, attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but I dare say
it is a meme of more recent birth.’’ Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses.
Frankly, I do not know what the reified entity ‘‘consciousness’’ really is (although I
certainly feel conscious enough), nor do I see that anybody else knows. It seems suffi-
cient for our purpose to take it as common wisdom that we are capable of special types
of cognitive, emotional, and voluntary processes, which we call conscious—a capacity
that, as we know, depends on the functioning of our brains. We also know that we can
lose this capacity, for instance during boring lectures, BUT ONE LOUD SENTENCE CAN BRING IT

Thus, there are very real problems connected with conscious experiences, inviting
thorough scientific inquiry: How and where do these experiences come about in our
brains, and what neurobiological functions and mechanisms are they dependent on?
What happens when we lose them during sleep or replace them with subconscious
dreams? Above all, when did such a capacity for conscious experience first evolve in
the natural history of our species or of other animal ancestors endowed with it? This
situation raises the question of the evolutionary level on which we can assume animals
have conscious experiences. All these questions are fully legitimate and bona fide sci-
entific questions, open to critical scrutiny, and I will come back to some of them
shortly. There are other questions that, in my experience, are at the forefront of most
people’s curiosity, yet are clearly out of bounds for scientific investigation—for exam-
ple, questions about the essence of consciousness, as if it were some pneumatic sub-
stance with a very special quality, or whether that substance, called psyche or soul,
could exist separately from our bodies and even survive their demise. Although the du-
alism of self-experience is irreducible, for a dualism of substance there is no evidence of
a scientifically relevant kind.
Third, I will also not address any further those scientifically accessible questions just
mentioned, such as the connection between brain functions and the conscious neural
state, however interesting it would be to do so. These connections are among the most
exciting in the field of neurosciences, advancing by leaps and bounds with the amaz-
ing progress of neurophysiological, neurogenetic, neurochemical, neurohistological,
electroencephalographic, magnetoencephalographic, nuclear-magnetic-resonance,
X-ray- and positron-emission-tomographic, and, nearly monthly, other new imaging
techniques applied to the intact, living, and consciously active human brain. The won-
derful detail in which all these and many other methods allow us to localize and corre-
late physiological, biochemical, and neurological mechanisms with specific mental
performances in the healthy as well as in the pathological brain will, in due course,
through investigations by thousands and thousands of our most gifted neurobiologists,
214 Hubert Markl

neuropsychologists, neurolinguists, and droves of other neuromaniac scientists—

probably in even less time than given by the ‘‘Decade of the Brain’’—unravel most of
the secrets of what is going on in our brains when our minds consciously think, feel,
desire, or intend. When that is finished, will it mean that we then ‘‘know’’ in the sci-
entific, reductionist sense of the natural sciences, what consciousness ‘‘really’’ is? As
said before, I doubt that a satisfactory answer to this question will be the final out-
come. I would be prepared to accept as a satisfying answer to the question of the
neurobiological basis of consciousness that, if all the neurophysiological processes
accompanying conscious experiences are localized, described, and quantitatively ana-
lyzed to the last molecule of the last neuron involved, then exactly such a description
is all there ever will be for a physical explanation of conscious experiences of the mind
(although it is most likely never fully achievable).
Whoever wants more than this, as for instance an explanation of how the neural
representation of the perception of Chopin’s Minute Waltz relates to the qualitative
subjective feelings evoked by this piece of music—the qualia problem, about which
some people presently make public noises by calling it ‘‘the hard problem of conscious-
ness’’ (see Chalmers 1996) and claim that eventually it can be brought to a scientific
solution—will be disappointed. It may after all turn out to be only the ‘‘hard problem’’
of seeing the emperor’s new clothes, in a semantic discourse that Francis Bacon (1974,
sec. IV.3) might have counted among ‘‘the first distemper of learning, when men study
words and not matter.’’
But even if this is so, it will not be a minor achievement, but rather a tremendous
success of the scientific investigation of the physical foundations of conscious experi-
ences and actions, if all the physical and chemical mechanisms involved in bringing
them about will have been finally elucidated, as without doubt they will be sooner or
later. This result will be one of the most important achievements of the scientific en-
deavor to explain reality in its currently most highly evolved form, but it will not ‘‘ex-
plain away’’ anything of this reality, or conscious feelings, or one’s internal certainty of
possessing free will with its capacity and obligation to make choices on moral grounds.
Nor will it cast the slightest doubt on the self-evident experience of the reality of the
private subjective mental world of the human individual. These aspects will neither
be touched nor, as it were, conjured away by the knowledge of what happens, for
instance, in a specific group of neurons in our limbic system while we feel a rising
Even if we animal behaviorists knew all and everything about dogs, it would still
take a dog to feel like a dog! And even if a man boasted that he knew everything
that can ever be known about his fellow men, let alone about women—which is
of course impossible—he would never know what it feels like to be the other, and of
course vice versa, unless they share and discuss their experiences with one another.
Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 215

Even then, and regardless of the gender variable, to hear a description of feelings is evi-
dently not equivalent to having such feelings.

Humans’ Capacity to Keep an Inner Theater Bountiful

The privacy of experience finally brings me to the question I want to explore further. I
am not concerned with what consciousness is, or with how our neural system brings it
about; instead I will frame Darwinian questions more thoroughly: Why has the human
species developed this astounding capacity to maintain an internal theater full of
images, thoughts, conclusions, beliefs, prejudices, emotions, hopes, and anxieties,
which we can conjure up almost at will, yet we can clear the stage only sporadically
and with considerable conscious effort? Why do we have this capacity? What might
it be good for? Can we see it as a special adaptation of our species? Needless to say,
answers to the questions will open up further questions, such as whether other species
have similar capacities accessible to us in recognizable degrees. A further consideration
is the nature of a relationship between the evolution of our conscious mind and our
equally significant ability to use symbolic language, and its impact on social systems,
which are characterized by common beliefs, knowledge, and the skills engendered by
a complex culture, handed on by learned tradition from generation to generation, and
modified and embellished along its historical path.
Let me try at least to hint at some new answers to such a set of functional consider-
ations, which would not be exhaustively addressed, even if we knew everything about
the neural mechanisms of conscious cognition, because we would still keep asking why
such activities occur at all.
I will pursue these matters from the base of a well-defined presupposition, a working
hypothesis, as it were, but one for which all the available empirical evidence speaks
forcefully: namely, that our ancestors (through Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene
epochs) evolved from an animal stage to the current human status as a whole—body
and mind, physically and psychologically—with brain and self-awareness, articulatory
apparatus and language capacity, instead of from increasingly humanlike, bipedal apes
who, one Sunday morning, woke up fully equipped overnight with a human soul that
made them once and for all something categorically different from all animal forebears.
In other words, the question of why we have developed the extraordinary capabil-
ities of conscious thought and feeling and of abstract conceptual language should be
answered according to the usual paradigm of Darwinian evolutionary theory, which
attempts to elucidate how a complex trait under study could evolve by means of
natural selection, the determining factor being the reproductive fitness of its bearers.
When we follow the expansive evolution of the hominid brain from its apelike state
in the bipedal Australopithecus afarensis (either 4–6 or 3 million years ago (mya))
216 Hubert Markl

through that of Homo habilis and Homo erectus (1.7–2 mya) to the fully developed
human brain of the earliest Homo sapiens several hundred thousand years ago, we can
assume that the enlargement of the hominid brain, which occurred concurrently with
the increasing fetal neuron growth rate, resulted in the increased complexity of the
hominid mind. The gradual refinement of tools and weapons is an early indicator of
such change. But what exactly is the purpose of such Darwinian fitness in relation to
the increasingly brainy creatures?
It is inescapable at this point to ask whether, and to what degree, we can assume that
our ape ancestors (or their more primitive primate and insectivorous mammalian fore-
bears) had already developed cognitive and emotional capacities, which would thus
allow us to impute to them conscious thoughts and feelings. This area of study, newly
dubbed ‘‘cognitive ethology,’’ receives considerable attention in the field of contem-
porary animal research, which includes more than fifty years of excellent work in
comparative experimental psychology, mostly on rats, mice, pigeons, monkeys, chim-
panzees, pigs, parrots, and even honeybees.
These studies have convincingly proven that all these and many other animals have
excellent associative and operational learning capacities, combined with short- and
long-term memory equivalent to that of humans. They have demonstrated, at least in
the warm-blooded vertebrates, the ability to develop mental representations, called
cognitive maps, that allow them—by drawing on past experience—to solve novel
problems related to orientation and manipulation, which in humans we would not
hesitate to call the result of deliberate thought. They have shown that all these ani-
mals, when exposed to complex choice situations, can make decisions according to
rules that tend to optimize some outcome of their behavior—for example, in the selec-
tion of food, nest sites, shelters, and social partners. They have, in exceptional cases—
for instance in rats, elephants, monkeys, apes, as well as pigeons and parrots—shown
that these animals are able to build abstract generalized concepts, such as numbers (al-
though well below ten), shapes, or colors of objects, and that some of them can associ-
ate such concepts with self-produced gestural or acoustic signals in a way that, in
principle, comes close at least to the use of words for conceptual notions in humans.
Summing up, most students of the cognitive performances of highly evolved verte-
brates, especially of mammals and above all, higher primates, seem convinced, even
after the most critical scrutiny of the experimental evidence, that these creatures are
able to learn and memorize and to think and solve complex novel problems in a way
not fundamentally different from what we know from our own experience. But do
they do this consciously, meaning, is there incontrovertible evidence for conscious
thoughts, feelings and, above all, self-awareness in any of these mammalian relatives?
It depends on whether one accepts similar evidence, for instance, when posing the
same question with respect to such human individuals as deaf-mute children, or dis-
abled stroke patients, or even simply some foreigner with whom one does not have a
Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 217

single word in common. Most of the signs that we take as a certain indication of con-
sciousness in such fellow human beings would easily pass muster in the aforemen-
tioned birds and mammals. Of course this may not convince the skeptic who
maintains that even the most humanlike ape is nothing but a highly sophisticated bi-
ological robot, some kind of active somnambulist, who performs learning, problem-
solving, and tool-using procedures as any microchip-equipped mechanical robot would
do. Such interpretations bring us dangerously close to the quicksand dilemma of
whether information-processing machines could be developed to reach such a status
of artificial intelligence as to become conscious beings—another question that I defi-
nitely will not try to answer.
Let me return later to the open question of conscious experience in animals—
although for me, the question is open only in the sense that the notorious skeptic can
hardly be forced by compelling evidence to accept that it exists, while critical observa-
tion of higher animals and birds makes it impossible, at least for me, to not ascribe
conscious experiences, thoughts, and feelings to them, mostly on the basis of the argu-
ment of evolutionary continuity between animals and humans. Instead, I will address
the question of why, from the state of an already rather clever and skillful problem-
solving monkey or tool-using ape, the rocketlike ascent of the genus Homo, with a tri-
pling of brain volume in less than two million years, could have occurred, and how
this ascent might have depended on the expansion of the physical nervous system as
well as of the mental capacities for conscious thought. Furthermore, this begs the
question of why our capacity to use and produce abstract symbolic language is defi-
nitely lacking as a natural behavioral ability in all those animals and birds I have just

Minds Neurally Loaded with Abstract Mental Contents as an Adaptive Trait

What could have made an increasingly conscious mind adaptive for our ancestors on
their way from picking fruit and cracking nuts to writing poems, playing sonatas, and
building cars with internal combustion engines? Apparently whatever constituted the
first stirrings of conscious thought in Australopithecus or early Homo, who were living in
groups of some twenty-five males and females with their offspring,2 avoiding their ene-
mies and eating seeds, berries, fruits, buds, and occasional insects, birds’ eggs, or, once
in a while, a butchered monkey baby, engendered a different evolutionary process than
that of the hairy chimp on the other bank of the river whose life consisted of the same
activities. It remains an act of rhetorical bravery to discern any advantage for reproduc-
tive fitness that might have resulted in increased thoughtfulness and premeditation
compared to the other animals around. Natural selection could hardly have worked
on enlarging the brain beyond the allometric proportions of animal primates (i.e.,
more than proportional to the increase in overall body size) if such enlargement had
218 Hubert Markl

not been connected with an enhancement of reproductive success. We should not for-
get that our brain is one of the most expensive organs to maintain; with hardly more
than 2 percent of our body weight, it needs nearly 20 percent of our total daily energy
consumption. Evolution probably would not have tripled the size of such a gluttonous
organ without a proportionately added value—and this balance is confirmed by evolu-
tionary evidence of increased replication activity of genes related to neural endowment.
The question of whether the enlarged cranial capacity is directly linked to the
enhanced conscious awareness of its bearer continues to remain unsolved. This corre-
lation could hardly have come alone from better learning ability, improved memory,
increased sensory information processing, or enhanced motor skills, because in all
these and many other aspects of neural control of behavior one cannot infer that
the capacities of humans would excel when being compared to their more lowly
relatives—from pigeons to parrots, from bats to dogs or monkeys—and in most
respects even when compared to ants and bees. Of course, it is well known that super-
proportional enlargement, especially of the hemispheres or terminal telencephalic
centers of the brain, was characteristic throughout mammalian evolution and that, es-
pecially in simian primates, the increased flexibility of learned behavior and decreased
control by genetically fixed patterns of behavioral routines allowed them to expand
their realm to diurnal arboreal life. It was this flexible adaptation to unpredictable
food sources and ways to escape enemies that gave them the chance to exploit the can-
opy region of tropical forests, where there were few other similarly large-sized compet-
itors around.
However, our ancestors came from the same prime living space that those primates
have left. They lived where there was definitely no dearth of large herbivores or carni-
vores and where, at least in the fully developed genus Homo, the free-swinging life of
the arboreal ancestors was exchanged for locomotion on solid, two-dimensional
ground for which, as antelopes, zebras, or warthogs demonstrate, extra-large brains
were certainly unnecessary. So brain size exploded from less than 500 cc to double
that size in a few hundred thousand years, and to triple that size in little more than a
million years of a way of life that basically was not too different from that of a horde of
baboons, which still escapes well-founded explanations today.
What seems to me the correct answer to this worrisome question is neither my own
nor entirely new. It has existed in one version or another for quite some time, con-
nected with names (especially of primatologists) from Allison Jolly (1999), Michael
Chance (1988), John Crook (1980), Hans Kummer (1990), or David Premack (1986) to
Nicholas Humphrey (1992), Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth (1990), Richard
Byrne (1995), Andrew Whiten and Richard Byrne (1997), Robin Dunbar (1993, 1996),
and Frans de Waal (1989), among others. Mostly, it goes by the name of social intelli-
gence theory of the human mind’s evolution. Its real content, however, as far as I can
see, has become clearer only since the application of game theory to the evolution of
Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 219

social behavior—that is, behavior whose outcome depends on the interaction between
individuals. It is the seminal studies of John Maynard Smith (1982) and William Ham-
ilton (1996) that have given us a deeper insight into very special aspects of optimizing
selection processes in natural populations.
Natural selection optimizes heritable traits of organisms under conditions of scarcity
of vitally necessary resources, because among the genetic variants available in every
natural population, these traits will increase in relative frequency from generation to
generation. Thus, the mode of distribution of heritable traits will move along a trajec-
tory of increasing adaptation to prevailing selective conditions, with the range of ge-
netic variation within a population determining its adaptability—that is, the speed of
this optimizing process and its ability to react to changing selective conditions by ge-
netic adjustment. This does not mean that, at any given time, any natural population
must ever be truly optimally adapted in an absolute sense; the dialectic properties of
the evolutionary process itself, together with the unpredictability of at least some influ-
ential environmental conditions, will always ensure that tomorrow some better solu-
tion may become the enemy of today’s good solution.
Now, as long as we are talking about traits that can be produced by an individual
alone, as for example control of blood pressure, efficiency of digestion, running speed,
or visual acuity, this short qualitative description of evolutionary optimization will
temporarily suffice. However, such optimization is no longer applicable if the fitness
success of one individual depends crucially on the actions of others with whom the in-
dividual has to interact in order to reach his or her goals. The typical examples of this
are, of course, predator-prey or host-parasite relations, aggressive or cooperative inter-
actions between conspecifics, and, among the latter, the interactions between sexual
partners in reproduction and those between parents and offspring in broodcare. Again,
natural selection will tend to optimize individual fitness and thus replicative success of
those genes influencing specific behavioral traits in all these relationships. But this suc-
cess depends not only on the characteristics of one bearer of a specific genetic constitu-
tion, but on behavioral responses and their control by genetic influences in behavioral
Whether reproductive fitness is better served when encountering a competitor for a
desired resource—say, a nest site, a territory, or a sexual partner—by giving in without
fighting, by threatening in order to discourage the rival, or by immediate aggressive
action will evidently be of great consequence for one’s chances of obtaining the
needed good. It will also very much depend on what the competitor might be able to
do in response to one’s actions and, above all—and this is the important point in the
present discussion—on the partners’ assessment of each other regarding the actions
and their possible outcomes with respect to genetic fitness. The same would hold for a
male having the choice of either to stay with a female in a continuing reproductive re-
lationship or to leave her for different partners during a lifetime, or for a broodcaring
220 Hubert Markl

female who might have to decide whether to invest in already-existing offspring or to

wean them and produce another clutch instead.
In all of these truly social interactions, which are adequately modeled by the mathe-
matical methods of game theory, the way to optimal adaptation is not as clear as it
usually is in the straightforward cost-benefit models of individual behavioral optimiza-
tion. Often it may not even be possible to reach an optimal outcome for all the part-
ners involved but only some compromise in the evolutionary race for fitness benefits
of all the relevant parties. Thus, an Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) in the sense of
John Maynard Smith’s work, more often than not can be only a compromise.
Without going into further details, there is one aspect of this common evolutionary
situation that deserves special emphasis. If each of the interacting individuals has
many different options for behavioral actions and reactions, with probabilistic distribu-
tions of possible outcomes for them, then the more flexible and open toward learning
processes the behavior of a species is—for example, more so in mammals than in rep-
tiles, and even more so in primates than in shrews—the better off these individuals are.
Consequently, if each of these individuals in a stable social group has, in addition, the
chance to learn from the consequences of previous amicable relations, playful inter-
actions, or aggressive clashes with other group members for decisions to be made in
future encounters between them, then we will not only get very complex individual
histories, albeit without detailed knowledge from externally hardly predictable rela-
tionships, we will also have social conditions for pursuing individual fitness in which
one capacity becomes paramount for the social and, consequently, reproductive suc-
cess of the participants. This gift shapes one’s behavior according to the most sophis-
ticated evaluation of all possible outcomes of all possible options of actions and
reactions, sometimes of two or more social partners who will all try to do the same,
possibly at the other’s expense. Social intelligence is a detailed and individualized
knowledge of relationships, and rank and behavioral dispositions, along with the abili-
ties of other group members, and with the rating of one’s own possibility to reach
desired goals in such a network of behavioral probabilities by acting immediately or
with deliberate delay. Under such conditions, it becomes the most vital, most crucial
resource. Remembering not only who is whose son or daughter or brother or sister,
but being able to evaluate what that means for Ego and its given set of relatives in the
struggle for social advantages and against disadvantages, may decide for an individual
whether he or she ends up successfully protected and well accepted in the core of a so-
cial group or as a peripheralized loser, an outcast in danger of being the first target for
predators and without much chance for replication of one’s genetic endowment.
Social advancement is endowed by learning and memory, self-control of one’s be-
havior, the ability to make and keep friends by mutual cooperation, and of course it
helps to be the son or daughter of a high-ranking female or to have many close rela-
tives with whom to join forces. But even more than all this, it certainly helps if one
Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind 221

does not have to rely only on learned traits or astute evaluations of present conditions.
Instead, when one has the capacity to enact present and past experiences in a mental
model that allows him or her to represent the probable outcomes of different possible
options of strategic action and counteraction under the given circumstances, then one
has a better opportunity to stay within the protective embrace of the highest-ranking
social group. By analogy, consider imaginary chess-game opponents and their strat-
egies to attempt victory.
This does not mean that I am hinting at an evolutionary explanation of why the
human brain is not only able (but in so many of us outright eager) to play such a
game as chess. Playfulness, the ability to engage in mock behavior, play aggression,
pretense of escape, fictitious hiding, and all those ‘‘as-if behaviors’’ that are not the
real thing but wonderfully useful to explore what could happen if they were real, pro-
vide fine examples of what games can do for social learning. More to the point, it
seems to me that exactly this performance quality of individuals, which allows them
to play a game like chess, has all the properties necessary for assuming that they are
capable of conscious thought.
But we need to add one more step, which will also answer the obvious objection that
such reasoning might force one to treat every $100 chess-computing program as a
conscious creature. The one additional step is that this whole neural cost-benefit ma-
chinery only becomes really productive in the sense of a higher-order mental device if
it can not only represent experiences past and present and rules connecting them with
possible moves and actions, but if it can also represent one’s intentions, expectations,
desires, and anxieties connected with this situational evaluation and, in addition, sim-
ilar mental states of the interacting partners. In other words, a brain with such per-
formance qualities would not only allow thoughts on past and present facts and
probabilities of events, but also harbor thoughts on thoughts, reflections on inten-
tions, hopes, and fears in oneself and in others, as well as representations of experi-
ences, but metarepresentations of thoughts about such experiences. That is what we
could call a truly conscious brain and, if we had convincing evidence for such capabil-
ities in an animal, we would, without doubt, not hesitate to call it a fully conscious fel-
low being.
In fact, for a number of mammals, especially for the hominid apes, we do have at
least highly suggestive anecdotal and some experimental evidence of such capacities
to infer intentional considerations in social partners, especially when trying to enlist
their cooperation in solving problems, but also in situations that we can only describe
as involving a deliberate intent to deceive a partner in competition for desired goods.
Thus, I would suggest that the capacity for full consciousness has evolved in higher
primates from already well-developed capacities in other mammals to the ability to