The Causal Body
Interview with Terry Coe (Part 2)
conducted by non-duality magazine
Below is the second extract from an interview between Non Duality Magazine and Terry Coe, a traditional advaita vedantin. See full interview at Non Duality Magazine.
... Read Part 1...
NDM: Can you tell me about the causal body? What is this? For example, is it in the DNA? Or something else that can be verified in some way?
Terry Coe. We talk about the three levels of existence, or ‘bodies’ for the individual. These are the gross body, the subtle body, and the causal body. These are nicely defined in a book called Tattva Bodha, which is sometimes attributed to Adi Shankara. Whether it’s really Adi Shankara’s work, or the work of another guru named Shankara, we don’t know. He defines the gross body as consisting of the five elements (space, air, fire, water, earth) which have become visible by undergoing a process of combination, called ‘grossification’. Here, one-half of one element, for example water, is combined with one-eighth of the other four elements to become visible water, and so forth. Your gross body, visible to you and to others, is subject to the six-fold changes of potential existence, birth, growth, transformation, decline, and death. This also includes the DNA, of course.
Then the subtle body consists of the five elements in their subtle form, which constitute sense faculties, the five faculties of action, the five prANas, or physiological forces, the mind, and the intellect. That is the subtle body. Your own subtle body is visible to you, but not to others. For example, that is why the optometrist has to ask you whether your new glasses work. He can’t see what you see, only you know whether you are seeing clearly! And no one can see your thoughts, either. So the subtle body is that which is not detectable by any means of measurement or verification, but you know it is there because of its effects, i.e. the body is alive, not dead.
He then defines the causal body as that which is in the form of indefinable, beginningless ignorance, the cause for the other two bodies (gross and subtle), ignorance of one’s own nature, and having the nature of non-differentiation between the subject and object. So ultimately the individual is anirvācya, meaning you can’t definitively classify it. Mithyā is like that, like the pot. You can’t classify it. You can’t say definitively what it is. That’s the first part of the causal body. Then it is of the nature of beginningless ignorance, avidyā. It is the source, the cause of these other two bodies, the subtle and the gross. Its defining characteristic is ignorance. It is the Atmā, the Self, identified with this mind/body sense complex. It is ignorance. That’s what the causal body is.
NDM: Plus karma and saMskAras?
Terry Coe: All those come because of ignorance. The sequence is: ignorance leads to a feeling of limitation, because being identified with this body, I feel that I’m limited and thus insecure. And I can’t handle that limitation, so I have a desire to do something to get out of that feeling of insecurity. This gives birth to all desires, which are desires for fulfillment, peace, happiness, love. They’re all the same desire, really, but because we don’t understand that, we think that the external objects, people, and situations are going to give us that fulfillment, peace, and so on. And desire leads to action, karma, and then you get the results of karma, which then causes another birth. It just goes on and on. It didn’t begin. Notice that he says ‘anādi’, beginningless. It’s beginningless ignorance. That’s why, if asked: “When did this start?” we say that it didn’t start.
NDM: Ok, so if we eliminate DNA.
Terry Coe: Yes, DNA is part of the gross body. You can see DNA. The subtle body is what you can’t see. The gross body is what you can see, and the causal body is that which causes you to identify with this gross and subtle body. It is that root cause of identification that causes the whole problem: samsāra. It comes from that root cause. That’s why we say ignorance is at the root of everything.
NDM: Ok so would you say that the causal body can be verified in a scientific way somehow. Is it a substance like an ether, soul. How does it reincarnate from one life to the other?
Terry Coe: The causal body doesn’t reincarnate. It’s the subtle body that reincarnates. The causal body is not in the individual. The causal body is the ignorance itself, and the idea of being an individual is the ahaṅkāra. The person, that jīva, is identified with the subtle body. So that’s what reincarnates: the subtle body.
NDM: Ok so the subtle body then is what has all the karmic imprints?
Terry Coe: Yes. We call them vāsanas or saṃskāras, and they are in the subtle body from birth to birth. That’s where the jīva comes from. It is Atmā associated with this ignorance. And that association through ignorance is the causal body. But it’s not a body in the sense of when we think of a particular individual. It’s what lies at the basis of the individuality itself, which is ignorance, because there is no individual. The idea of being an individual itself is the causal body.
NDM: Would you say the causal body is like an unconscious world mind, so to speak? Is it a ‘superconscious mind’, like Carl Jung described?
Terry Coe: Well, the mind itself is part of the subtle body, and hence a product, so to speak, of the causal body. That includes both the conscious mind and any subconscious, unconscious, or in the case of Carl Jung’s theories, superconscious mind. The latter could be equated with the mind of the Lord when it manifests as all knowledge. This is then part of the subtle body, but not the individual subtle body. It is the subtle body at the cosmic level. As Kathopanishad states, “As it is here, so it is there.” In other words, every aspect of this manifest universe at the micro level has its equivalent at the macro level. There is an individual mind with individual intelligence, and thus there is also a cosmic mind with cosmic intelligence, in other words, all intelligence, all knowledge. When the Lord manifests as the cosmic intelligence, the name given is Hiranyagarbha.
NDM: So, would it be correct to say there is one causal body for the whole thing?
Terry Coe: Yeah, because there is only one cause for the whole thing, namely ignorance.
NDM: Ok, so this same causal body runs through all of it.
Terry Coe: Yes, there is no division in it.
NDM: Its just there.
Terry Coe: It’s just this huge crystallized mass of ignorance, if you will. (Laughs)
Terry Coe: Yes.
NDM: So how does māyā play into the causal body?
Terry Coe: Good question. You see yourself as an individual, and you see this world. You have a body made up of these elements: the five elements, both gross and subtle. Likewise, you are facing an external world that is made up of gross and subtle elements. These are all brought into manifestation by some force outside of you as an individual. You are aware of the world and its forms, and you are aware of your knowledge and aware of your ignorance. At the level of the whole, this force is called māyā. At the level of the individual, we call it avidyā, ignorance.
Māyāis that force which makes all this appear. It has two aspects, namely covering and projection. The counterpart at the individual level is like when you see the rope and take it for a snake. You see something is there, but you don’t see it as rope. The knowledge of rope is covered, as it were, and in its place the idea of snake is projected onto the rope by the mind. That is ignorance at the individual level. Maya does the same thing at the cosmic level, covering the reality of non-duality, and projecting endless names and forms.
NDM: There is something that isn’t clear on the causal body for some reason. I have read many different takes on it. I’m wondering whether each teacher interprets things a little differently from each other. I mean how much leeway is there for interpretation for all of this. Are they supposed to differ a little bit?
Terry Coe: No, the teaching should be consistent. This is why it is called ‘sampradāya’ or a teaching lineage. The word literally means ‘handed down well’, in other words, handed over clearly from teacher to student. What I quoted to you there from Tattva Bodha is the teaching, and comes directly from the śruti, the Vedas. The causal body is simply ignorance of one’s nature, and that ignorance has no divisions in it. Nirvikalpa means it has no division, no differentiation. It’s not that you have a causal body and I have a causal body. There is one causal body, and it happens to be ignorance. Ignorance of what? Ignorance of the non-dual reality, which causes the idea of division. This in turn ‘causes’ the subtle and gross body, so to speak, and the subtle body is that which reincarnates. The causal body can’t reincarnate because it’s the underlying cause for the whole thing, for the many subtle bodies. So it doesn’t change: it is beginningless ignorance. That is the only way in which it is described…
…In Mundaka Upanishad, there is a very famous mantra, where it states that having looked around and gone through all life's experiences, one may see that what one truly wants is something that cannot be gained through actions. Actions are by their nature limited, and can produce only limited results. What one is looking for is an unlimited result, and therefore something that isn’t created through action. Any ‘created happiness’ depends on a particular person, object, or situation. And it always ends. I want happiness that doesn’t end. If it doesn’t end, then it can’t begin! So what I’m looking for is something that’s not created. If it’s not created, then it must already be here. And if its already here and yet I’m not aware of it, then there is ignorance. It means I have something to learn. The person who sees this clearly is then no longer interested in external pursuits, because they have seen though these illusions of transitory pleasures that really have no value, because they don’t deliver what the person really wants. Even though all one’s life, the person has been going for those things, now the person going to change their focus. And for that, what does one do? One goes to a teacher.
Terry Coe has been a student of Pujya Swami Dayananda since 1989, attending courses at Arsha Vidya Gurukulum in Saylorsburg, Rishikesh and Coimbatore. He studied Sanskrit at Harvard University and has taught workshops in Sanskrit phonetics at yoga studios in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. He is currently conducting weekly classes at AVG on Katha Upanishad and a Bhagavad Gita Vichara Group as well as various outreach activities. In addition to Sanskrit, Terry speaks German and Russian, and is a professional German-to-English translator.