“I am” is the most fundamental bare presence of who we are, denuded of time, space, thought, feeling, perception and sensation, yet ever suffusing every moment of sensory and mental experience. It is our aware being, the pure knowing in the known, the naked experiencing in the experience that we take to be our most basic identity—“I am.”
“I AM” is the macrocosmic or universal counterpart of this same “I am,” deemed to be formless and thus infinite, equated with the Being of God. Seemingly disparate from the point of view of the conceptual mind, “I am” and “I AM” are actually not two but one. They are merely named differently and thus their disparate existence is merely connotative or nominal, that is, merely named or labelled as such.
When the mind is not thoroughly illumined and fully silent, there appears to be a distinct “I am” within the expanse of boundless “I AM.” But in samadhi or deep absorption of mind, there is only a nondual expanse of “I AM” in the evenness of silent clarity. This is a somewhat elevated state but not at all identical to awakening (sambodhi) or liberation (nirvana). This universal or cosmic aware “I AM” that we sometimes take to be God’s Being is not really what it seems to be. At best, we can say it is the initial configured state of God’s Being that renders it cognizable.
God’s (inter)Being is in essence an ineffable expanse of attributeless, empty (of inherency or autonomous isolated existence), luminous, blissful pristine awareness completely devoid of any “I” or “I AM” whatsoever, pervasively present in and as all Three Persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet, God’s (inter)Being is unequivocally different from creation’s interbeing in one crucial and essential way: all things in creation inter-are by virtue of dependence on one another, on causes and conditions, on mental conceiving and naming, and ultimately on the sovereign Creator God.
But God Himself is not dependent on another or on causes and conditions, but His identity as Three Persons is internally but co-equally dependent on one another. Ontologically, there is no domination of One over Another or subjugation of One under Another. Relationally and actionally, there is pure overflowing mutuality of Love and Self-giving in the unitive communion dance of our ThreeOne God. God is pure self-existent intra-contingency. This is God’s essential nature of emptiness or (inter)Being.
Coming back to “I am” and “I AM,” the Buddha interestingly calls this sense of “I am” a form of ego conceit. I think and know he is right. We may not be aware of this subtle clinging and grasping but it is there and it harms. At the very least, it prevents us from reaching full awakening and liberation if we hold on tightly to this meditative realization. In the Buddha’s clear detailed exposition of the phenomenology (experiential map) of meditative states, this “I AM” experience would fall under any or all of the four formless states (aruppa): base of infinite space; base of infinite consciousness; base of no-thingness; and base of neither-perception-nor-non-perception. These four formless realisations unfold on the basis of the fourth jhana (concentration) of impeccable mindful equanimity and are really variants of the same, differing only by a hair’s breadth in terms of their highly subtle meditative theme.
But we need to go beyond this. Beyond this into nirvana, which is emptiness (sunyata), suchness (tathata), and buddha-nature (buddhatva). The Buddha taught us the Way. In essence, this Way entails we let go completely and radically, further than anything we thought possible, deeper than anything we assumed capable. The imprints of ignorance run deep and the residues of ego-grasping far more insidious and pervasive than previously presumed. Advaita teachers, like the Buddha’s former teachers of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, can bring us far long the Way. But if we hold onto their ideas however subtle and profound, we will miss the mark of nirvana. We will not be truly awakened and free. Our meditative inquiry must go deeper and further than ever before, right to the very end—nirvana.
For this purpose, studying the Buddha supplemented by Nagarjuna, Buddhapalita, Chandrakirti, Dignaga, and Dharmakirti could and would be helpful. Together, their explications can confer a correct view of experienced reality (samma ditthi) that forms the basis for our direct penetrative insight into unborn, unoriginated, undying, unconstructed, and unconditioned nirvana.
Realizing nirvana may free us from suffering and its causes. But it does not necessarily free us from sin. Beyond nirvanic freedom is full recognition and enjoyment of triune God in Christ, whose innermost nature as we have seen is emptiness of (inter)Being. We may realise the emptiness of all things including consciousness itself, but we can still remain oblivious to the chasm that bars us from realizing God. But grace works in surprising and unpredictable ways. In and through the amazing spiritual sovereign grace of God, Christ performed what no one else could to remove the chasm (of separative sin, shame, guilt, condemnation, and penalty of cosmic treason) and draw us unto and into Himself. Holy Spirit freely and graciously regenerates our innermost being into saving faith that awakens and sanctifies us unto Christ. Nirvana and Salvation are grounded in Him—our All in all.
One final word: the process of awakening and liberation into nirvana juxtaposed with the dawning of regenerated spirit and saving faith into Christ are not necessarily sequential and linear, though it can be. There is much freedom and spontaneity in the temporal and spatial unfoldment of such profound spiritual events. Let us be open in mind, heart, soul, spirit and body to the miraculous grace of God in the warp and woof of our everyday lives.