The Four Levels of the Word

Vak: The Four Levels of the Word

The form in which the highest divinity is worshipped in some schools of NST (the Trika) is the Goddess Paravak, the “Supreme Word,” or simply Para. Para is the tantric equivalent of the mainstream deity Sarasvati, except that she is revered in the Trika as the highest principle of reality. She is also called Anuttara, “the feminine Absolute.” In the Trika, the totality of existence is understood as an expression of the Supreme Word, and thus all beings are the “Word made flesh,” as it were. This concept has parallels in Greek thought where the “Word” is the English translation of the logos, denoting the deep structure of reality, the harmonic animating principles of the universe. In this view, everything is a harmonic vibration of the one Word.

Paravak, then, is the power of inspiration and the organizing intelligence of embodied consciousness: the subtle patterning of Awareness that shapes both the world of things and the corresponding world of ideation and representation. The Word manifests in two different ways and these mirror each other: signifiers and what they signify. That is, the Word becomes both the symbolic units of language and the objects of experience to which they refer. These are the internalized and externalized dimensions of one Consciousness, the Goddess Para (who is understood to be the Mahadevi, i.e. the feminine aspect of Siva). When we do not see the common root of both external objects and of experience and the internal ideas that reflect them, we fail to realize their interdependence. For example, we erroneously believe that “external” reality shapes our inner world but not the other way around: whereas in fact, both aspects are constantly shaping and reshaping each other in a two-way dialectical process.

The two sides of this process are described in NST as each having three aspects, thus giving us the so-called Six-fold Path of Reality (sad-adhvan), presented below. This listing moves from the more subtle at the top to the more tangible and concrete at the bottom (suskma & sthula). This process is simply the densification of the singular energy of Consciousness. We should also note that the division into “internal” and “external” makes sense only from the perspective of the individual conscious being. From the Absolute perspective, nothing at all is external to Awareness.

The Six-fold Path is a pan-Saiva doctrine, not just found in the Trika; however, it is the Trika that explores and builds a theology around the inner Path of the Signifier. It is this theology that I mean when I refer to the “linguistic mysticism” of the Trika.

Why do we as individuals often hold ideas that are not in alignment with the nature of our external reality? The answer lies in the fact that Consciousness, the ground of reality, is by its very nature absolutely free and autonomous – so free, in fact, that it is free to construct any picture of reality it likes, to build up any discourse about reality that it likes, even one that is very much at odds with the deep structures and patterns of nature. In other words, Consciousness in its contracted form is subject to limited knowledge, and when, because of its contracted awareness, it takes its limited knowledge of reality as being complete, it builds up a new picture of reality on the basis that it is, in fact, skewed and distorted, however many truths that picture may contain. And of course, this skewed picture of things does correspond to a reality – the reality of the limitation of our perception. So, all thought-forms do correspond to some aspect of realty – just not usually in the way that we think they do.

From this point of view, the whole process of sadhana is nothing but the process of carefully and slowly aligning our internal mental constructs of reality (vikalpas) with the actual patterns of reality itself, and of discarding those that cannot be so aligned. Putting it another way, sadhana consist of learning how to cast aside our presumptions, to carefully observe what is happening around us and inside of us, and then to surrender our various and skewed stories about reality to Reality itself. At some point, the effort involved in this process gives way to an epiphany, a deep and profound insight into the deep structures of Consciousness, into the “mind of God,” if you will, as a result of which the process of alignment unfolds more or less spontaneously.

The Trika articulates a doctrine of four levels of the Word in order to help us understand the inner Path, the process by which we each construct a particular experience of reality. Understanding all of this is crucial for those who wish to open themselves to the real nature of things and surrender mind-created suffering. We will investigate the four levels of the Word. The chart below delineates the levels.

 Vaikhari Vak: The Corporeal Level of the Word

If we start from the most concrete, the first of the four levels is Vaikhari, the level of ordinary everyday articulate speech. Vaikhari functions on the level of duality, and in it, object-awareness is predominant. Human language is inherently dualistic, for each word achieves a particular meaning only by negating all other possible meanings. Further, spoken language is oriented to the objects of consciousness, and it operates analytically – that is to say, it helps our minds divide reality into discrete chunks and sort and categorize them. This creates a problem, for if we believe that language reflects reality accurately, we will necessarily start to see reality dualistically. That is, we will perceive a world carved up into different chunks of differing values, a world of separate entities acting on (and often against) one another, instead of a continuum of unity in dynamically balanced interrelationship.

Often, we mistake a linguistic symbol for a fact. This may not seem a big deal – mere philosophizing – but the consequences of this cognitive act of “reifying” a linguistic symbol are serious. In the realm of religion, we call it fundamentalism (believing your religious text is literally true rather symbolically true) and as we know, this has been responsible for some of the most vitriolic hatred and horrific bloodshed of the last hundred years.  So, this is not mere “philosophizing.” There are serious real-world consequences to these subtle processes by which we build up our picture of reality. Therefore, we must try to understand them.

To help us penetrate to a deeper level of reality than dualistic perception, the Trika doctrine shows us that the world of articulated human language is actually the most superficial and gross level of the Word, and investigating its deeper, subtler layers helps us see reality more accurately. The top-level “corporeal” discourse, in which we engage every day is, in this philosophy, like the surface of the ocean – it gives little indication of what’s happening underwater. Your ordinary speech is constantly informed by deeper levels of discourse and can point you towards those deeper realities. In other words, ordinary speech  (Vaikhari) is shaped by how you think (Madhyama); how you think is shaped by your deep unconscious convictions about reality (Pasyanti); and those in turn are partial articulations of the singular divine Awareness (Para) that freely chose to express itself in a rhythm of contracted and expanded forms. In light of this, the way you speak expresses something of the underlying pattern of your consciousness. If change is desirable, then, on the tantric path we do not seek that transformation  in terms of superficial programmatic adjustments of our words to conform more successfully to social sanction (even the sanction of a very spiritual community). Rather, we seek shifts on the deepest levels of our awareness that then express themselves naturally through the spontaneous play of our thoughts and words. So, words do matter, not in terms of themselves, but in terms of what they signify, what they point to or reveal about the way we are encountering and understanding our world. Additionally, words are important because they are forms of action, by which we effect (or inflict) change in the world around us. Our words are patterns of energy that powerfully shape other people’s experience of reality and our own, and therefore, must be used with care.

Madhyama Vak: The Intermediate Level of the Word

The second level of the Word is Madhyama, the level of thought or “internal discourse.” On this level, the process of knowing is more important than the things known. Language on this level is not like that which we speak; it is what some call “mentalese” – the language the mind thinks to itself with a mixture of words, images, fragmented phrases, and half-formed ideas. The Madhyama level is the substrate for the formation of persistent dualistic thought-structures called vikalpas; in other words, this is the arena in which the mind formulates its thought-constructs, the forms of verbal symbolization that it then superimposes on reality. Vikalpas are essentially the distorted and over-simplified stories that we tell ourselves about reality and then we reify or take as fact. The ability to distinguish that a vikalpa is a representation of reality – and possibly a faulty one – rather than reality itself is a crucial skill for the tantric yogi; some say the crucial skill.

Yet this level of discourse is closer to the essential nature of Awareness than the previous one, for by its very nature, it operates within the realm of duality (bheda) but within the sphere of synthesis or unity-in-diversity (bheda-bheda). All the various concepts, contradictory though they may be, are unified by the field of individual consciousness.

The inner discourse of the Madhyama level operates through the three aspects of the mental instrument. In the intellect (buddhi), this takes the form of deliberation, contemplation, or judgment; in the manas, it manifests as imagination and dreams; and in the ego as self-referentiality. Some of these, like contemplation and imagination, are expansive forms of inner discourse that can be tools in moving closer to our natural state of freedom and presence. For this reason, there are tantric practices that are performed on the Madhyama level, purifying and aligning it, such as the practice of visualization (dhyana), deity-yoga, meditation, and creative contemplation (bhavana). These are like asanas for the mind.

The proverb that typifies tantric practice is, “We rise by the support of the same ground that trips us.” It is important to note that our thought-constructs (vikalpas) limit the range of possibilities for how we experience any given reality, yet cultivating purified thought-constructs – those aligned with the organic patterning of awakened consciousness – can by the same token expand our range of possibilities.

Pasyanti Vak: The Visionary Level of the Word

The cultivation of purified thought-constructs is very difficult to accomplish if we are not also working down in to the third level, the Pasyanti or “visionary” level. This is a level beyond ordinary discourse, where the vibration of thought and feeling seem totally wordless. It is the level of pre-cognitive Will (iccha-sakti), the initial impulse of Consciousness towards expansion. On this level of the Word, there is no differentiation of space and time, and sound and light as well are synthetically fused. The Word is very much active here, though in a compacted and concealed form.  This is the plane of nirvakalpa awareness: in this context that term does not mean “without thought,” but rather that the vikalpas have become converted into pure energy in very subtle forms. Because these are so deeply internalized, they have more power to influence us – for good or ill.

On this level, subjective awareness is dominant; that is, the subject-object split is scarcely operative for the various objects of experience have collapsed into the subject. We perceive the impressions of the various experiences as part of ourselves. So, this is the level of our pre-cognitive, deeply held beliefs about reality; woven into our sense of self, and all the stronger for being wordless. This level is called “visionary” because the pattern held here powerfully shapes our vision of reality, structuring our thoughts on the Madhyama level and our words on the Vaikhari level. The subliminal impression of past experiences (samskaras) held here constantly provide the template for our mental and physical engagement with reality. Hence, if our yoga does not reach to this level, lasting change is impossible. This is the level of deep healing, where our goal is to create a pattern in the deepest level of individual awareness that perfectly aligns with the cosmic divine pattern.

The model of the four levels of the Word helps us understand why it can be so hard to tell the difference between a “hunch” that expresses deep, intuitive insight and one that expresses deep subconscious programming. We feel both viscerally, but while the former is completely reliable, the latter is only sporadically so. The difficulty in telling them apart is that they both bear the mark of the Pasyanti level: the former arises from the fundamental level of the Word and passes through the Pasyanti level to reach the mind, while the latter rises from samskaras, which have been imprinted on the Pasyanti level.

We must therefore be skeptical of our hunches and investigate their real nature. One way to tell the difference between the arising of true intuitive insight (from the Para level) and the arising of deep conditioning (from samskaras on the Pasyanti level) is this: when we question the hunch, if it comes from samskaras, the mind will defend and justify it, arguing for its validity and pointing to the “evidence” that seems to corroborate it. By contrast, when we question a real intuition, it remains silent. The insight does not need to justify or explain itself, but offers itself as a gift. It takes practice to listen to the voice that is quieter than the mind.

There are three methods to penetrate the Pasyanti level. The first is to repeatedly cultivate purified thought-constructs on the Madhyama level of conscious thought, until the patterning of awareness becomes strong enough to spill over and shape the unconscious pattern on the Pasyanti level.

The second method is a type of mindfulness meditation, which is oriented to the Pasyanti or visionary level. By accessing the all-accepting Witness Consciousness that dwells on this level, we create a healing space of awareness in which old samskaras are automatically released. To be clear, in this type of meditation, instead of focusing on a mantra or the breath the whole time, you spend some time sitting in a space of complete openness, neither seeking nor pushing away thoughts but simply watching non-judgmentally whatever arises. This is the most effective method for healing samskaras.

The third method is mantra recitation. The practice begins on the Vaikhari level (simply speaking or saying a mantra), where not much benefit is experienced. If sufficiently practiced, however, the mantra becomes subtler and subtler until it purifies all three levels of speech. To work with this method, recite your primary mantra with faith and loving, full-hearted awareness, both in meditation and throughout the day, and in time, it will naturally transition from articulate form to a rhythmic pulsation in which the words are no longer distinct but their vibration is still present. When this pulsation starts to arise spontaneously (that is, with no conscious volition) and blissfully, then the mantra has penetrated to the Pasyanti level. When this level is purified, whether by the method of purifying thought-constructs, mindfulness meditation, or subtler mantra repetition, then the unobstructed light of divine Will Power directs you to awakening – by the realization of your ultimate nature.

Para Vak: The Supreme Level of the Word

That ultimate nature is the Supreme Word. It is totally beyond the distinction of the three planes described above and yet constitutes the deepest identity of each of them, the vibration from which they all arise.  It is the realm of higher non-duality. That means it is a reality that coincides with no single plane, yet is that from which the various planes derive the capacity of performing their respective functions. Unlike the other three planes, it cannot be measured in terms of greater or lesser degrees of contraction for it embodies the very divine Freedom that presides over the appearance of contraction in its various forms and degrees. It is called the Supreme Word because, though it is beyond verbalization, it constitutes the power of verbalization and symbolization. That is, it is the very essence of self-reflective awareness (vimarsa), the power by which Consciousness represents itself to itself in various forms, that it may know itself fully.

The fundamental vibratory essence from which all language, thought, feeling, and perception arise, Para is a divine mystery, for despite being the highest principle of reality, we all experience Her every day in the form of our own self-awareness. She is not some mystical state stowed away in a void, but rather the singular, all-encompassing vibration by which all things move and sing.

She is the primordial, uncreated Word, the very essence of the highest reality, pervading all things and eternally in creative motion: She is simply luminous pure Consciousness, vibrating with the greatest subtlety (as the ground of all Being). Abhiniva Gupta, the Para Vak.

Abhinava Gupta goes on to say that everything – stones, trees, birds, human beings, gods, and demons – is a harmonic vibration of that one supreme Word. Her dominant powers are svantantrya-sakti (the Power of Absolute Freedom), and vimarsa-sakti (the Power of Self-Awareness). She is most fully expressed in human experience in the state of chamatkara, the state of fully self-aware expansive wonder, where Consciousness is suffused with the sudden rapture of great beauty vibrating with awestruck joy. This state, beyond words, transcendent yet completely engaged with the reality present in awareness, reveals to us how the Goddess Para can be simultaneously the transcendent source of all things yet completely immanent in all things. She suggests to us, that ultimately we can experience exquisite beauty in each aspect of human existence: in stillness and change, in death and rebirth, in growth and decay, in pain and joy.

SOURCE: Wallis, Christopher. Tantra Illuminated: The Philosophy, History, and Practice of a Timeless Tradition. Anusara Press, The Woodlands, TX, 2012.