The Three Malas

The following quote is from the Tantrasara, “Essence of the Tantras”, by Abhinava Gupta written 1,000 years ago in Srinagar, Kahsmir:

 “Consider the following: if living beings suppose themselves to be in a state or condition of bondage, such a supposition on their parts arises entirely as a result of the force of a fundamental thought or state of mind on their parts. Moreover, that very supposition [that they are bound] is itself the cause of their continued condition of transmigratory bondage. However, if an opposite mental state or thought arises, it can expel that thought or mental state which is the very cause of continued transmigration and it can thus be the cause of arising spiritual goodness.“And such a thought or mental state is as follows: That which transcends the entirety of all the principles of reality whose nature is limited and bounded, from the earth principle up to the Shiva principle, that is the Supreme Reality composed only of the unbounded and unlimited consciousness. That is the place where all things are established in their respective differences; that is the vital energy of all; by means of that everything breathes, and that alone am I.”

(Tantrasara of Abhinava Gupta, Ahnika 4, KSTS # 21; Translation © Paul Muller-Ortega; Published in Theory and Practice of Yoga, Knut A. Jacobsen (Ed.), p. 199, 2005)


Joshua Tree Retreat Center sunrise

Suppose (verb) To assume or believe or take to be true; To posit as true for what follows. From the Latin supponere; sub + ponere; to “put-under”. Supposition (n.) a belief that underlies or is the foundation for what follows.

Returning now to exploring my previous post’s question for contemplation: “What is that supposition, the deepest unspoken limiting root-belief that binds the infinite imperishable Self into the limited individual and seemingly separate human self?”

 In the teachings and philosophy of classical Yoga (~ 500 CE) and in the later tantra-yoga of Kashmir Shaivism (~ 1000 CE), both traditions agree on one central and overarching principle: In both of them, the highest and the only true self-identity of every being is Consciousness itself. In classical yoga this is called purusha. In the later non-dual writings it is called atma. I often refer to it simply as the “Self”( with capital S).

This principle is stated with perfect simplicity in the first Shiva Sutra (I.1):

< caitanyam ātma > “ Consciousness is the Self.”

The field of Consciousness is both the universal Self of all existence, and at the same time, our personal individual field of living awareness. This is declared as our true and final identity, the Self. It is that which “I Am”.

All of reality and all of experience arises and is manifest as vibration-forms within the field of Consciousness. For me, this is the most startling, expansive and liberating recognition of all. It turns any limited view of the world upside down (not to mention of modern physics) and grounds reality in its own transcendent Source.

At a universal level, Consciousness is seen as the ultimate reality principle. That of which there is nothing higher (anuttara). It is the underlying ground of all being. And so it is at the individual level: It is within the light of our awareness that all experiences arise and take place. Thus it is called “The Light of Consciousness.” Not the content of our conscious experiences, but the ever-present light of awareness by which that content is seen and known. There can be no experience that does not take place in consciousness. Without that nothing could be known. So it is indeed the “light” of our awareness.

[Note: While the terms “consciousness” and “awareness” are essentially synonymous, I try to use “Consciousness” when referring to the universal aspects, and “awareness” when speaking of the personal. Even though, from the highest perspective, these are one.]

Now, the individual and personal field of awareness, whether called purusha, atma or the Self, was always and is forever perfect and full. It has no limitations. It is completely free and ecstatically whole. It does not need to be “enlightened”. It just needs to be realized and reclaimed as our own core identity.

So how then does our embodiment into a human circumstance of apparent limitation take place? Where has separation, error and limitation of our knowledge come into play? And the resulting suffering in life that results from such limited access to our own highest nature? And why is that condition of limited knowledge and circumstance so persistently arising in relative human life?

Limited knowledge is the cause, the tradition declares. The second Śhiva Sutra declares “jñanam bandaḥ”, “Limited knowledge is bondage.”

It is an erroneous dual supposition or belief, says the svatantra-yoga teachings:    First is the mistaken belief that what is not our true self is taken to be our true self. This is referring to the physical body, to the limited mind, to our thought-forms, ideas and identifications with what is limited and temporary (such as our professions, possessions, group identities etc.)  Then the second mistaken belief is the corresponding false supposition by which we fail to know what is our true Self: Our transcendent imperishable Conscious Self; That which we can come to know by direct personal experience through deep introversive meditation. This is the Light of Consciousness: the Self.

There are three primary mechanisms of contraction or limitation of knowledge. They are called the three “malas”. These are the means by which the unlimited Self is “bound” into the play of circumstances with the character of ordinary human life and suffering. Mala in Sanskrit is often translated as “stain”. But I find it can best be understood as forms of erroneous beliefs and thoughts. The three are the anava-mala, the mayiya-mala and the karma-mala. These are the dimensions of the “ignorance” or limited knowledge of our true nature. They exist only in our body and mind. And they veil or conceal the fullness and perfection of what we already are as purusha, the Self.

The anava-mala is the root of all of it. Anava means “small”, atomic or infinitesimal. It is the result of our transcendent Self becoming embodied as a limited human being. It feels very, very small. It feels like a big mistake. We arrive in this life and feel somehow incomplete and imperfect because we are not in touch with our fullness and universal nature. It is the primordial inferiority complex. And everyone has it. It is intrinsic to being a limited human being living a mortal human life. And, as one of my teachers put it, “It is the most untrue thing that we ever could possibly believe.”

The progressive untangling and release of the anava-mala through a life process of study, yogic practices, and refinement of our knowledge until the “erroneous supposition” is clearly viewed and released from our self-identity, is rightfully called “Self-realization”. That is the path of liberation. And it is indeed a heroic endeavor. The process begins only when we are touched, at some point in our life, by the call of Grace. That is the initial awakening.

The other two “malas” arise as a direct result of the anava-mala, the mala of diminution. The second, the mayiya-mala, is the error of distinction or of discrimination. It is the habit of mind and judgment that sees otherness and differentiation: me vs. not-me. It says “This is higher and that is lower. Other persons and groups are seen as separate and different. Every form of separative distinction is the thought-habit of the mayiya mala. It is that which isolates us.

Yes, differences actually do exist and are manifest in the relative dimensions of life. But there is an overarching and more fundamental unity underlying all things and beings at the most subtle and transcendent levels of reality. That “unity-consciousness” is the transcendent and permanent recognition that progressively comes into living focus. “Difference” is then seen to arise and exist only within a much great preponderance of “non-difference”.

The third mala arises directly from the first two. Out of the pervasive experience of smallness or diminution (anava-mala), and of being separate and distinct (mayiya-mala), arises the feeling that we are acting as isolated and distinct agents. This sense of individual “agency” accompanies all of our actions in most persons’ lives. It says: “It is I alone who is performing my actions.” Separative perception does not recognize that the entire universe is acting through and with us. Our actions are not separate from the whole. This supposition that we act as separate agents is called the karma-mala. It is the error of limited action. It is “arrogation”, taking on the operation of the universe as being our own. There is a subtlety here: This does not negate nor deny our absolute freedom to act. We are completely free in the Self. Freedom is fundamental and intrinsic to Consciousness. “Svatantra” means literally “self-weaving”. But when we act the whole universe acts in concert with us. Our own wholeness cannot be breached.

These three dimensions of limitation are the foundation of how the universal unbounded Consciousness becomes embodied as an individual sentient being. Untangling these erroneous suppositions of the three malas through meditation and progressive refinement is a path to direct knowledge towards liberation and the highest fulfillment. For me, this perspective provides a sort of roadmap for my practices and unfolding progress in life.


The Highest Yoga

“Consciousness is not the foam playing upon the surface of human existence and activity. It is the Ocean.”           -Paul Van Camp

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Johane in awe of Ausangate Glaciers, South side


A few days ago I returned from a very challenging and rewarding month of travel in the Andes mountains of Peru. When I went to my desk this morning I found a note I had written to myself on the day of departure 4 weeks ago. It was a question I had posed for myself to explore. I call these “Bhavana questions”. Such questions act as seeds for arising insights, insights fueled by the ongoing and regular practice of deep meditation.

That bhavana question read: “ I suppose. What is the supposition, the deepest unspoken limiting root-belief that that binds the infinite imperishable Self into the limited individual and seemingly separate human self?”

In other words, How does the already perfect and unbounded field of my own conscious awareness, which at the highest level is at once both personal and universal in essence-nature, become limited into the individual embodied and lived human existence? How does it become so persistently bound in limitation in this life? That is a question that goes to the heart of yoga. And by “yoga” I do not mean any particular tradition or form of practice. But rather every path and means in every tradition that seeks to unfetter and free the Self to know itself as the Divine.

My trip to Peru with my wife was our second in two years. We went with two objectives. First we would go on a trekking adventure along Inca trails in the high Andes mountains. Some years ago we did a four-day trek along the traditional Inca Trail to visit Machu Picchu. I wanted to return to some less traveled trails and visit Quechua communities living their traditional lifestyle. Last year we did a two-day trek that was extraordinary and filled with astonishing beauty of both humanity and the natural wonders. That was followed by 10 days of voluntary medical service in small communities of the Andes around the Sacred Valley.

This year we wanted to “up the ante”. We trekked the highest and most challenging of the standard treks in this region, the 6-day loop around the highest and most sacred mountain in this region, Mt. Ausangate. We crossed 7 major passes including two at or above 17,000 feet. It was hard. It was amazing. And it was a joyous adventure we shared.

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Ausangate, North side

Again this was followed, after two nights of rest in Cusco, by embarking on another 10-day medical mission with a team from Project Helping Hands. The team of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and dentists worked very hard. We followed narrow tracks to remote villages, llama-trekked to others, to spend long days giving careful medical care and education to these beautiful and appreciative people.

On the last morning of our journey, meditating in my little tent, I had another bhavana-born insight about all of the work and challenges that our team had shared. It filled me with admiration for the members of this team who worked so well together. It goes to the very heart of what is called “yoga”. Even though (to my knowledge) no other member of the team had any ongoing daily “yogic practice” such as meditation, other than asana (yogic posture exercises and classes).

The Bhagavad Gita is one of the oldest source texts of the yogic traditions of India. It was believed written down perhaps in the 8th or 9th century BC. The conversations that it comprises are between Arjuna, the great yet conflicted warrior, representing the human side, and Krishna, as the avatar providing a voice for sublime wisdom. Through these conversations it describe the various types of yoga, and a universal wisdom that transcends religion and culture.

At our farewell luncheon I told our team of how inspired I was by each of them. You see, this team embodied yoga on three levels during our service mission. It is something that we all do in our varied lives, within our own work, with our families and in our service to others.

The first level is yoga of action. This is called Kriya Yoga. It is the way of “doing”. Every person on our team, for example was doing something extraordinary. They had left the comfort of their homes at significant personal expense and effort to travel to Peru. To trek into the high Andes, bringing medications and supplies. Then spent long days in service to all that showed up. (We treated over 2,000 medical patients, and nearly 1,000 dental patients individually.) This is kriya, the yoga of action. We show up, and we do what is needed. We give that which we have to give.

But behind and supporting this is a higher yoga, Jñana Yoga, the yoga of knowledge. This ultimately refers to the highest or most refined knowledge that leads to a liberating understanding life and Self at the deepest level. It is the knowledge that bestows fulfillment, even enlightenment. For this is the birth-right and destiny of every human. This is the very purpose and goal of deep tantric meditation.

In the context of this team I saw that their capacity to “do” was entirely supported and arose from their prior and existing knowledge. The hard-won knowledge acquired over years and even decades of study, of college and professional schools, of internships and residencies, of the patient teaching from uncounted teachers and preceptors. This professional knowledge is what gave rise to the capacity for these individuals to go to Peru and bring this very knowledge into their most capable service. This is Jñana yoga, moving from knowledge into the sphere of action.

Yet there still is a higher and deeper yoga underlying even this. It is this the Bhagavad Gita praises as the highest form of yoga. This is Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion. It is also the easiest, most natural and simplest mode of yoga. It does not have any separate parts: just the simple and empowering engine of one’s own spontaneous devotion to the highest in life and being. Devotion is the unspoken primal desire for fulfillment, the desire or power of will that longs for fullness. Without this there would not even be the interest much less the driving motivation to achieve knowledge. Without devotion underlying a desire to serve there would be no path of learning, no higher schooling, no careful and orderly acquiring of knowledge.

So it is these three yogas that combine together: devotion, knowledge and action; Bhaki, Jñana and Kriya, each giving rise to, and supporting the next. That is the beautiful sequence of yoga I came to see in my Project Helping Hands Peru team members this past month. And to that I bow.


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Quechua Mother and child, People of the Andes

To those who are devoted to the imperishable, the indefinable, the unmanifest, the omnipresent, the unthinkable, the immoveable and the eternal are the best of yogins.”     – Bhagavad Gita XII.3

Dear reader, I realize I have left you dangling with the very question with which I opened this posting: “What is that supposition, the deepest limiting root belief that that binds one’s infinite imperishable Self into the limited individual and relative human self?”

So I will continue and address this in my next posting, to be called “The Three Malas”. It is a fascinating consideration.

Best and Highest to each of you,    – Paul


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Morning at a pre-Inca Moon Temple site