You Are That (.org)
The resurrection of my late lamented website (mostly) on spiritual matters.

Tat tvam asi: "You Are That"

[This essay was originally posted to]

The Condensed Version

Eastern and Western thinking differ on a key point. The East says we are one with the Ultimate, but don't know it; the West says we cannot be one with the Ultimate, but only come into relationship with it. These two points of view may in fact be closer together than we think.

A Story from the Upanishads

[In the first section of the Chandogya Upanishad, we read of the teaching of the 24-year-old Shvetaketu by his father Uddalaka.]

Shvetaketu had been to school, studying the Vedas for twelve years. He was full of knowledge--and not a little conceited.

His father Uddalaka, perceiving his son's arrogance, called to him, and asked: Shvetaketu, with all your swagger, have you, my boy, ever sought out knowledge of that which though we hear cannot be heard, though we perceive cannot be perceived, though we know cannot be known?

Shvetaketu, of course, had no idea what his revered father was talking about. What is this knowledge, Father? he asked in confusion.

Uddalaka replied: Son, by knowing one lump of clay you may learn about everything made of clay; the only difference between such things is the name, a result of speech. But the truth is that all such things are of the same substance. Likewise, by knowing one nugget of gold, you may learn about everything made of gold; the only difference between such things is the name, a result of speech. But the truth is that all such things are of the same substance. And the same is true for even the simplest tools made of iron. This, my son, is the knowledge of which I speak.

Shvetaketu said: My respected teachers must not have known this, for if they had, they surely would have told me. Won't you please tell me more of this knowledge, Father? And Uddalaka agreed to do so.

[A long series of teachings follows. In sections 12 and 13, two of the most famous illustrations of You are That are given.]

Uddalaka: Bring me a fruit from the banyan tree.
Shvetaketu: Here is one, Father.
Uddalaka: Break it open.
Shvetaketu: It is broken, Father.
Uddalaka: What do you see there?
Shvetaketu: These tiny seeds.
Uddalaka: Now break one of them open.
Shvetaketu: It is broken, Father.
Uddalaka: What do you see there?
Shvetaketu: Nothing, Father.
Uddalaka: My son, you know there is a subtle essence which you do not perceive, but through that essence the truly immense banyan tree exists. Believe it, my son. Everything that exists has its self in that subtle essence. It is Truth. It is the Self, and you, Shvetaketu, are that.
Shvetaketu: Please, Father, teach me more.
Uddalaka: I will, my son,

* * * * * * * *

Uddalaka: Place this salt in water, and come back to me in the morning.
The son did as he was told.
Uddalaka (in the morning): Bring me the salt you put in the water last night.
Shvetaketu (after looking): Father, I cannot find it.
Uddalaka: Of course not; it has dissolved. Now taste the water from the surface. How does it taste?
Shvetaketu: It's salty.
Uddalaka: Taste the water from the middle of the bowl. How does it taste?
Shvetaketu: It's salty.
Uddalaka: Now taste the water from the bottom. How does it taste?
Shvetaketu: It's salty.
Uddalaka: Go, throw it away and come back to me.
He did so, and returned.
Shvetaketu: But, father, although I have thrown it away, the salt remains.
Uddalaka: Likewise, though you cannot hear or perceive or know the subtle essence, it is here. Everything that exists has its self in that subtle essence. It is Truth. It is the Self, and you, Shvetaketu, are that.
Shvetaketu: Please, Father, teach me more.
Uddalaka: I will, my son.

[The teaching continues; but this is enough for our purposes.]

Identity with the Absolute

This story illustrates an idea that Joseph Campbell (amongst many others) sees as the defining difference between "Eastern" and "Western" spirituality: the question of identity with the Absolute. In "orthodox" Western thinking-- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-- God is Wholly Other from his creation (as stated by Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy), and the creature must never aspire to become one with God, but rather only to come into full knowledge of, and communion with, God. (Even as I write that phrase, I can't help but feel like we're splitting hairs here. More on this below.)

The Mysterium tremendum et fascinans

Otto's "Mysterium Tremendum" discusses a mystery before which we both tremble and are fascinated--are both repelled and attracted. He says the idea of "the numinous is experienced as 'wholly other.'" Otto's sense is somewhat different from mine; he is speaking of the experience one has when encountering the "other"; I am referring more to the actual nature of the "other." 

Note the word "orthodox" in the paragraph above the box. There are plenty of Western thinkers who see union with God as not just a possibility, but as the highest state of achievement. Christian mystics, of course, and the Sufis of Islam. There is a wonderful Sufi teaching that illustrates this point:

  1. A moth hears a rumor or receives a teaching from a wiser and more learned moth concerning the flame, which it assumes is God. The wise one speaks truly and imparts much knowledge which spans mystical revelation and several of the physical sciences. The moth who truly hears the wise moth has acquired the first degree of initiation, the Lore of Certainty. He has not acquired the Truth, and he may not even believe the wise teacher, nevertheless he has achieved The Lore of Certainty.
  2. Another moth has heard of the flame and has traveled to investigate it. He sees the flame for himself and he realizes that the wise moth spoke truly. He also realizes that the teachings of the wise could not possibly do the flame justice. And the aspiring moth may even make some critical judgments himself adding to the Lore of Certainty. This moth has achieved the second degree of initiation, The Eye of Certainty.
  3. A more foolish moth is not content with the knowledge he has gained once he has achieved the Eye of Certainty. He decides to go closer, to experience it more directly. In doing so he comes too close and his wings are singed. He becomes wise indeed because he has achieved the higher level of knowledge. He has not just seen the truth, but he has felt it. He has achieved The Truth of Certainty.
  4. Another moth decides that even the Truth of Certainty is not enough. It suspects that there is still a higher level of initiation, although all of the wisest assure him that there is not, and that he would be a fool to try. Ignoring all advice he joins the flame and merges with it, thus achieving the highest degree of initiation. His very essence has become one with the flame. This is The Essence of Certainty. (Found here; I have made some small edits)

Identity in Judeo-Christian Orthodoxy

But it's not just the "mystics," the far-out travelers in the spiritual ether, the foolish moths. Even as stodgy an old bishop as Saint Athanasius, "defender of the faith," could say, "For the Son of God became man so that we might become God" (De Decretis) And Thomas Aquinas, arguably the greatest Christian theologian of all time, wrote: "The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods." (Opusculum contra errores graecorum).

Not good enough? Think they're a bunch of Catholics? Then try this, from John 10:31-38:

The Jews took up stones again to stone him [Jesus].
Jesus answered them, "I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?"
The Jews answered him, "It is not for a good work that we stone you but for blasphemy; because you, being a man, make yourself God."
Jesus answered them, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, 'You are blaspheming,' because I said, 'I am the Son of God'? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."

That's Jesus talking. And I think he would know something about Christian teaching! And he said that God said, "You are gods."

He was quoting Psalms 82:6-7:

I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you.
nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince."

I may revisit these passages in a later article; they are complex and controversial. Certainly they go against everything taught by Christian and Jewish orthodoxy. And scholars have found ways to rationalize away the impact of these words. Jesus only quoted this passage in reference to himself, they say. And when God says, "You are gods," he is using another meaning of the word "Elohim"--even though it is one of the most common names for God in the Hebrew scriptures.

But I just want to say: Here is Jesus, founder of Christianity, and the Jews, "inventors" of monotheism, with thorny verses indicating--on the surface, at least--that all human beings are gods. "You Are That."

A Stereotype of Eastern Spirituality

Nevertheless, this is not the mainstream view. As Uncle Joe points out, Christ was crucified for claiming Godhead--as was the Sufi saint Al-Hallaj, who wrote eloquently about the moth and the flame, and who claimed straightforwardly: "I am the Truth"; "I am God"; "In my turban is wrapped nothing but God"; and, pointing to his cloak, he would say: "There is nothing underneath the cloak except God."

So, in an orthodox monotheistic environment, such a claim can lead to execution. Yet this view, so dangerous in the West, is almost a cliché of Eastern spirituality:

Q: What did the Zen monk say to the hotdog vendor?
A: "Make me one with everything."

In the stereotype of Eastern spirituality, we are told that the "Eastern Mind" sees ignorance as the only barrier between That and us. But this is an oversimplification; in fact, the Hindu Vedanta has three major positions on the topic, the Advaita ("Not Two-ness"), the Visista Advaita ("Qualified Not Two-ness"), and the Dvaita ("Two-ness"). The Advaita Vedanta insists that reality cannot be divided into two, as in saying that Brahman and I are separate. One does not become Brahman; rather, one already is Brahman, and simply needs to come to this realization. This is the widely-held stereotype of Eastern thinking. The Visista Advaita Vedanta is a modified form of Advaita Vedanta, saying that one is a part of Brahman, but is not fully Brahman as in Advaita Vedanta. When one attains union with Brahman, one retains one's identity, becoming a part of Brahman, but not lost in Brahman, so "You Are Part of That." Finally, the Dvaita Vedanta goes entirely against the stereotype, and appears much like the Western "orthodox" view, insisting on the different-ness of God and creation as vehemently as any Western fundamentalist. It claims a complete distinction between Brahman and the world, between Brahman and souls, and between souls and other souls. Here, "You Are Not That." Thus, the individual is alone, until, through meditation on scriptures to attain consciousness of Brahman, the individual achieves moksha, or liberation. This, however, is impossible for the individual to initiate; rather, it depends on Brahman reaching "down" to the individual.

So really, this idea of "You Are That" represents only one model of "union" from the East, the Advaita concept of merging with God.

Even in the Buddhist tradition, the Southern Buddhists say that I may only become an arhat, never a Buddha; and the Mahayana says that while I may become a Buddha, I will never become the Buddha. That is, I will not merge into "God," but rather I will merge into that which he also merged into. True, we will be intermingled. But think of this: A famous Advaita image has it that we melt into God like a salt doll who walks into the sea. So the Mahayana model is something like this: One salt doll (the Buddha) walks into the sea; I, a salt doll, walk into the same sea. My goal is not to merge with him, but with the sea (which is essentially Nirvana). In doing so I do in fact mingle with him, but only incidentally.

Early Contacts with Advaita Vedanta

So, whence the widespread understanding that this idea, that we are the "Divine Ground of Being," is the view of the East? It may go back to the 19th century, when Britain's hold in India had become firm and we in the West started to hear some of the Indian philosophy for the first time.

A quick look at Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The Over-Soul" shows how deeply Vedantan views penetrated into American thinking, generating the Transcendentalist movement in New England. Emerson referred to the Over-Soul as "that great nature in which we rest ... that Unity within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other." The Transcendentalists were influenced in their thinking by such newly-available (in the West) Indian classics as the Vishnu Purana, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. (More on this in Leslie Perrin Wilson's article "New England Transcendentalism.")

A further brick in the wall may have been the arrival on our shores of real swamis. In 1893, for example, the first World Parliament of Religions was held in conjunction with the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. Attendees included renowned Swami Vivekananda (a disciple of the great Hindu sage Sri Ramakrishna), who soon started Vedanta centers in New York and elsewhere. His impact on the West may be judged by the fact that he was the first Indian to be invited to accept the chair of Oriental Philosophy at Harvard University.

So some of the earliest "authentic" Eastern teachings we received from the source, whether texts or teachers, were the Indian Advaita.

A Powerful Idea

History aside, the idea is a powerful one, and has been taken up again in the late 20th century by teachers associated with the so-called "New Age" movement. A notable example is this quote from Marianne Williamson (often--wrongly--attributed to Nelson Mandala):

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

The authentic principle of You Are That, however, is not such a "pop" concept, a sort of "believe and receive" or "name it and claim it" or "positive thinking." Rather, it is the fruit of the serious discipline of the yogi.

At Realize!, we are not proposing that everyone trade his business suit for a loincloth and head off into the forest. Instead, we are encouraging people to take the essence of "You Are That" as a working hypothesis: Whether it is "orthodox" or not, there is great power in the idea that

I participate in the Oneness of All that is.

Joseph Campbell wrote eloquently of the hero's struggle to find his place in the scheme of things, and how, when he achieved his goal, he often found that (like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz) he had had it all along. We Westerners, who struggle so with ideas of sin and redemption, might benefit from this "Eastern" viewpoint; but when we do, we may find that it echoes certain ideas already prominent in Western philosophies:

Joseph Campbell on the Hero's achievement:

...where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world. (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 25)

T. S. Eliot in "Little Gidding" (the last of his Four Quartets):

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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