Reflections on the Absolute
© Thomas J. McFarlane 1995

The word absolute comes from the Latin absolvere, which is also the root of the words absolve and absolution. It is a compound of ab 'away' and solvere 'to release', and hence acquires the meaning 'to set free'. More specifically, the Absolute is that which is free from any restriction, limitation, qualification, condition, dependence, or relation. It is thus non-relative, independent, unconditioned, unqualified, unlimited, and unrestricted. Moreover, since words necessarily delimit and qualify, the Absolute can not be spoken. In other words, it is necessarily ineffable and ultimately mysterious.

The mystery of the Absolute is reflected in the paradox that inevitably arises when we speak of it in spite of the fact that it can not be spoken. When naming the Absolute, we identify it with freedom as opposed to restriction, non-relative as opposed to relative, unconditioned as opposed to conditioned, and unlimited as opposed to limited. By naming it, however, the Absolute becomes, through this opposition, restricted, relative, conditioned, and limited. But that is precisely what the Absolute is not. We have not, therefore, actually named the true Absolute.

The fact that we can never truly speak of or even conceive of the Absolute is not simply a matter of current limitations in our conceptual powers. It is a matter of principle. For any time we utter a word or think a thought we necessarily qualify and delimit. Immediately, that then falls short of the true Absolute, which is free of all qualification and limitation. As Lao Tzu put it, "the Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao."[129]

The Absolute thus appears to be entirely transcendent, forever removed from this world, from speech, words, thought, and conception. This understanding, however, is also in error. For, lest we forget, since the true Absolute is free of all qualification and limitation, it is even free of the qualification of being unqualified, it is free of the limitation of being unlimited. The unqualified, after all, is distinct from the qualified, and is therefore qualified by that very distinction. Similarly, the unlimited is limited by being distinguished from the limited. Consequently, a more subtle and complete understanding of the Absolute recognizes that the Absolute is comprehensive of both the unlimited and the limited, the unqualified and the qualified, the unconditioned and the conditioned. It includes both opposites. The Absolute is therefore not exclusively transcendent. It is also immanent. It is not just the non-relative, but also the relative. It is not just nirvana, but also samsara.

There are thus two understandings of the Absolute. In the first view the Absolute is distinct from the conditioned, the limited, and the qualified. It is transcendent and can not be identified with any word, thought, or object. This is the relative view of the Absolute. If one penetrates further into the true meaning of the Absolute, however, the inconsistency of the relative view is recognized and the ultimate Absolute is revealed. In this recognition, the Absolute is free of all conditions -- including the condition of being unconditioned. It is free of all limits -- including the limit of being unlimited. It is free of all qualification -- including the qualification of being unqualified. The Absolute is therefore recognized in its true ineffable and mysterious nature.

Because the Absolute comprehends all opposites, nothing can be predicated of it in an exclusive sense and yet everything can be predicated of it in a non-exclusive sense. The Absolute is transcendent, but it is not exclusively so -- It also comprehends the immanent. The Absolute is unconditioned, but it is not exclusively so -- It also comprehends the conditioned. Thus the Absolute is both everything and nothing. Nothing is the Absolute in an exclusive sense, and everything is the Absolute in a non-exclusive sense. Although words fail to completely capture or exactly define the Absolute, they do suggest and symbolize the Absolute imperfectly and partially.

Being true to the Absolute, the ultimate recognition of it is ineffable and mysterious. If the recognition of the true Absolute took the form of a view or concept, it would not be a true recognition. Therefore, the true recognition of the Absolute is necessarily Absolute. It can have no limits or conditions or qualifications. The only perfect recognition of the Absolute is the Absolute itself. Thus to recognize the Absolute is to be the Absolute. In particular, the recognition of the Absolute is not conditioned by the division between a knower and a known or a subject and an object. Thus to realize the Absolute is to realize ones identity with the Absolute. Consequently, realization of the Absolute necessarily coincides with self liberation. Moreover, since there is no disjunction between knowledge and the object of knowledge, recognition of the Absolute has complete certainty with no possibility of error. For where there is no representation, there can be no false representation.

The relative understanding of the Absolute is the reflection of the Absolute in relative terms. Although it is ultimately incomplete and imperfect, this understanding is the purest and most complete representation of the Absolute that is possible within the sphere of language and thought. It is the jumping-off point to the true Absolute, the limit of thought and relativity. One may ascend in thought, progressing in abstraction to higher and higher levels, leaving behind more and more conditions and qualifications, until this ultimate limit of thought is reached. At this point, if thought is left behind, the Absolute may be recognized in its utter simplicity and purity.

Although the relative understanding of the Absolute is necessarily incomplete, it is nonetheless a valuable gateway to the Absolute itself. Similarly, there are lower levels of understanding that are progressively more and more limited and conditioned, yet serve as steps to carry one upward. The path to Recognition, therefore, consists not in accumulating knowledge, but in stripping conditions away, abstracting, and universalizing -- rising to higher and higher levels of generality until understanding becomes identical with the Absolute itself.

Teachings and scriptures are created with the intent to carry others upward through the levels of understanding, and although they may be inspired by a perfect recognition of the Absolute, they are nevertheless clothed in words and concepts, and consequently share in the imperfections of relative knowledge. They are pointers beyond themselves, symbolizing and urging us toward that which they can not directly indicate. No matter how refined and subtle a theory or teaching, it inevitably falls short of perfectly reflecting the true Absolute. Nevertheless, they can be of great value so long as their relative status is kept in mind and they are not confused with the Absolute itself.

When any teaching, theory, or concept is taken to be Absolute, our understanding is thereby clouded and limited. For all words, concepts, and theories are conditioned by the relative distinctions and definitions upon which they are based. And when one view is taken to be Absolute, other views are necessarily denied, resulting in rigidity of thought and conflict between people. By recognizing the relative and conditioned nature of views, the understanding enjoys the perspectives of all views and harmony naturally arises.

Although all views and theories are by nature conditioned, they are not equally so. The levels of understanding and perspectives form a hierarchy graded by the degree to which they are conditioned. It is not the case that the relativity of all views implies that they are all equal in value and truth. Some views near the top of the hierarchy are very subtle and reflect the Absolute with a high degree of purity, while other views are more restricted and give a more distorted reflection of the Absolute. Thus the higher levels are endowed with more truth, value, and reality than the lower levels. As conditions and limitations are superimposed upon the Absolute, its true nature is progressively veiled and distorted as one descends down the levels of the hierarchy. The ascent is thus characterized by removing the limitations and conditions to reveal the Absolute in its purity.

Although the gateway to the Absolute is at the top of the hierarchy, the Absolute itself transcends the hierarchy. At the same time, the Absolute is immanent in every level of the hierarchy. Thus, in the relative view, the path to the Absolute is upward through the hierarchy by purification. Yet the ultimate truth is that the Absolute comprehends the hierarchy in its entirety, Thus, one does not reach the Absolute by rising up the hierarchy, but by realizing that the hierarchy is the Absolute and there is therefore nowhere to go -- you already are the Absolute.