Q: I have been studying the teachings of Ramana Maharshi interspersed by writings by some 'modern' teachers of self enquiry. I won't go into the differences or confusion that creates in my understanding. Ultimately, I tend to stick with the 'real deal' Bhagavan's teachings. However even his teachings in the form of dialogues seem contradictory at times. Similarly, the Buddha's teachings seem contradictory at times as well. Nevertheless, having been blessed with a tendency to think analytically and logically the essence of Bhagavan's teachings and that of the Sakyamuni Buddha seem to come through if one persists and tries to understand the essence of what they are trying to say.
should also give you a bit of a background with
regard to my skills in this mundane world. I have
been trained as a cognitive scientist and
I have no problem understanding and 'accepting' some of the
well known proofs about this physical world we inhabit. For
as long as I remember I have known that everything on this
planet and other universes are made of atoms and share the
same elements, and atoms are basically empty space, despite
the feeling of solidity of objects. These ideas may
be difficult or even a 'WOW'
revelation to some people, but not to those who have
pursued science. Here comes my question: I have
also done research on cortical wave forms during sensory
perceptions and have a clear understanding that any thought
which occurs soon after sense perception is just a squiggle
of a wave form... an energy pattern and electrical pattern. To
me there was a WOW factor when I did my first experiment
on a cat. But then honestly there are many scientists who
these areas and they can hardly be said to be Enlightened or
Awakened-- at least not in the same way as Ramana Maharshi
or The Buddha.
A: I think this must qualify as the longest question I have ever received! But you have clearly been thinking very deeply about these problems so don’t take that as a criticism.
First of all, the ‘real deal’ as regards the teaching of advaita is the traditional kind. This has been tried and tested for over a thousand years and has proven methods appropriate for all types of seeker. A good teacher who is familiar with these methods, knows the scriptures and is enlightened, will be able to gauge the needs of a seeker and use the best method, story, metaphor etc. to remove relevant areas of ignorance. The problem with reading a book, even one with dialogs from someone as good as Ramana, is that the answers he gives are the ones that were relevant to the questioner. They will not necessarily be appropriate for you and may even mislead. Anything that can be spoken or thought necessarily falls short of the truth since it is in the realm of dualistic vyavahAra. Hence the confusion.
This is probably worse for someone with a scientific background since they will tend to analyse everything very carefully and pick holes in what is said. (I should know – I have a degree in Chemistry!)
I’m not sure quite what point you are making about thoughts being electrical patterns. What you are saying is that the particular apparatus you were using was one which detects electrical activity and represents it in a particular way, aren’t you? Isn’t this analogous to saying that the eye detects electromagnetic radiation of a particular type and converts it to signals that are interpreted by the brain? I.e. they tell you nothing about other radiation that might be present, such as IR, UV or gamma, nor do they tell you anything about compression of the air or ultrasound or effect on the gravitational field and so on. The point I am making is that detectors of any sort, whether scientific or organic, tell you nothing about the ‘thing-in-itself’.
The single area that continues to elude science is the nature of consciousness. Scientists continue to try to explain how the brain can manifest consciousness. The idea that everything might be an appearance IN consciousness is one which seems to be alien to them. This consciousness is the ultimate subject, the essence of all the appearances, which are themselves only name and form of that non-dual consciousness. This is the knowledge that enlightenment entails and it can never be revealed through scientific investigation because the subject cannot investigate the subject – science is necessarily dualistic.
Experience of any kind, including that of ‘oneness’ is not ‘it’. Experiences have a beginning and an end in time and time is intrinsic to vyavahAra (along with space and causality). Enlightenment is nothing other than self-knowledge, when all of the self-ignorance has been removed. The body-mind will continue to operate and the world will still appear but all of these are now known to be mithyA only. Feelings of oneness or duality may also occur and will also be known to be mithyA. You are right – enlightenment is in the mind – where else would it be? There is a further distinction, namely between j~nAna and j~nAna niShTha. Basically, the enlightened mind will not necessarily immediately feel the benefits of enlightenment (peace, love etc.) if there was insufficient mental preparation beforehand. There is already a Q&A or essay about this at the site.
On the question of hearing something and becoming enlightened, yes, that may happen to a particular person but not to another. The point is that there will usually be many ‘blind spots’ in the understanding of a particular mind. As the teaching is heard, knowledge ‘vRRitti-s’ are acquired (mental modifications) and there will be ‘mini’ realizations in response to particular revelations. In the final revelation, the akhaNDAkAra vRRitti, the mind ‘takes on the form’ of the ‘undivided’ reality. The light bulb metaphor is a good one for the knowledge vRRitti-s. The removal of ignorance may be gradual but enlightenment is binary. This subject is dealt with in detail in my next book (‘Enlightenment: the path through the jungle’).
The questions as to why the world appears, why there is ignorance etc. are not ‘valid’ questions in advaita. From the vantage point of reality, there is no creation, there are no minds, there is no ignorance. The confusion is only in the mind of the person, which concepts (confusion, mind, person) only have validity in relative reality. Yes, it is all paradoxical from the mind’s point of view but all is resolved in self-knowledge.
On the subject of ego, whilst you believe yourself to be a separate entity, a doer and enjoyer, the concept of ego has validity. And a teacher has to begin from where you believe yourself to be. All of what a teacher tells you has provisional validity only and is ALL rescinded in the final analysis – this is the technique of traditional advaita.
Q: (Continued following above answer) I agree that for someone who is stable with their enlightened beingness ( for lack of words to describe the state of being ) it is not an experience that has an end. However when people talk about before their enlightenment ( even the Buddha has specifically stated that after he attained enlightenment he was able to clearly see the reality and that everything he had known prior to that was an illusion. Although teachers say, there there is no enlightenment and nothing to attain, ( since there is no self and nobody there) definitely people talk about the transformation that happens that they may call by various names ( awakening, enlightenment). Yes, it may be progressive or spontaneous as in the case of Ramana Maharshi and Eckhart Tolle and a few others. We have reason to believe that these people's 'experience' certainly marks their transformation. It just adds to the confusion to keep insisting there is no experience - though this may be not in the same sense as sensory experiences, it is something that brings about a revelation that most of us seekers strive for.
Again, to say there is no ignorance amounts to saying what the Neo Advaitin teachers say: " nothing to do nowhere to go. Better yet, you are perfect in your ignorance" or "Now stay where you are and be whatever you are and let me write some books and conduct some satsangs to let you know you need not come to satsangs and need not read anyone else's books except mine."
This is what I hear when teachers say do nothing and just be. Surely, the wise sages did not tell us that. So what actually do you mean when you say, "all is resolved in self knowledge?" If there is no ignorance, what self knowledge need arise or reveal itself to wipe out the nonexistent ignorance?
Yet you are writing books . Why bother to write books then? Why don't we all remain ignorant that there is no ignorance? 'Ignorance is bliss' takes on a new meaning with new teachers. Both Ramana Maharshi and the Buddha and many others clearly talk about ignorance being the source of all our suffering and enlightenment amounts to removal of that ignorance- sometimes spontaneously, sometimes progressively. All the sAdhanA-s are geared towards removal of ignorance of one kind or another. Even with a few years of practice one begins to see where our ignorance stems from - from our attachments to the illusion of our 'self' and how such attachments cause suffering and continue to keep us bound in the cycle of saMsAra.
On the issue of having to do nothing and waking up to the Absoluteness, perhaps it is possible for some to awaken without doing nothing, not even having a desire for it, but even those teachers who say we need to do nothing ( in terms of action) have all done all sorts of practices in the past before arriving at that conclusion. That includes Sakyamuni Buddha who practiced for several years under various teachers and, finally dissatisfied and still with a goal and an unshakable resolve, sat under the tree for his final enlightenment. We can never be sure that those practices did not have a cumulative effect in transcending the conditioned mind and attaining Oneness with the SELF. Although those who are functioning in a state of enlightenment may be clearly able to see the futility of any effort, it is not clear that lack of any effort on their part would have helped them see 'Reality' in the first place.
I still would like to ask someone the question about why the SELF (the big SELF) creates the egoic self (i.e. that our conditioned mind is none other than our own SELF-- according to Ramana Maharshi and others) and at what point it decides to seek itself. Yes, this may not be an Advaitic question, but it is nevertheless a question we need to ask if we assume the small self and thoughts, feelings and all other stuff of everyday life arise from the same substrate as our true SELF.
It seems like an elaborate game and any curious mind would start to think why consciousness would create such an elaborate set up. What's the point of it all? Why did consciousness in the human form begin to build this 'egoic mind' that has brought about this strong identification with our bodies resulting in a sense of separateness from each other and all other beings. May be we won't have answers to all of this. But surely others have had these questions and perhaps some enlightened beings have had something to say about this?
A: I have never been accused of sounding like a neo-advaitin before! My next book will distance me from modern teaching of all varieties once and for all.
It seems that your missing the point I was making is caused by failing to recognize clearly the distinction between paramArtha and vyavahAra (and this is the principal problem of the neo-advaitins, too!) and also not understanding exactly what enlightenment is (a common problem).
‘There is no ignorance’, ‘no person’, ‘you are already enlightened’ etc. are typical neo-advaitin statements and they are true only when referring to absolute reality (which you cannot do anyway, pedantically speaking). In reality, there is only the non-dual brahman – end of discussion.
At the relative, empirical level of you and I discussing this in an apparent world of separate things, there is definitely ignorance and there are definitely people, 99.999+ % of whom are not enlightened. Enlightenment is an event in time, in the mind of a person, when the self-ignorance about all of this is replaced by self-knowledge. And, yes, when this occurs it is quite likely that it will be accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of revelation (though not necessarily so). In order to become enlightened, this self-knowledge must be acquired and the best (some would argue only) way is from a qualified traditional teacher. Part of the process also entails the acquisition of certain conducive qualities of mind – discrimination, dispassion, self-control etc. – this is the ‘practice’ element that is often referred to. In itself, practice cannot bring about enlightenment. The problem is ignorance, the only solution is knowledge.
This self-knowledge is irrevocable and unarguable. It is known that the world is only name and form etc. and that all is one. It is not an experience. Indeed the experience continues as before, seeing everything as separate, but it is like still seeing the sun rise in the morning yet knowing that it is the earth that orbits the sun.
I’m not sure what it was that I said which implied I was claiming you do not have to do anything. It is true that you do not have to do anything to BE the non-dual Self but if you want to KNOW this, you have to acquire the knowledge. And the two-hour satsang of a neo-advaitin (or any other) teacher will not provide this knowledge. It runs counter to a lifetime of programming by society, parents, friends and teachers. Accordingly, it takes prolonged effort over a long period (the scriptures refer to lifetimes of effort but let’s not go into that!)
I’m afraid you are not going to get an answer as to why the ‘big Self creates the egoic self’. As I said, from the vantage point of that ‘big Self’, there has never been any creation – how could there be when reality is non-dual?
Hope things are becoming clearer!
Recently I've been having long, complex, endless conversations with a dear friend who is tremendously obsessed with, and depressed by, the Environmental Crisis: Global Warming, Species extinction, the end of the oil supply, the coming water shortage, the Whole situation.
She is a very intelligent, extremely compassionate woman, and her painful awareness, which never lets up, of all the suffering she sees going on has totally destroyed the 'faith in Life' she once had. She is in deep despair. I have no idea what to say to her as I have no "answers" myself.
OK. My question: In the Advaitic view, how does one deal with the, albeit apparent, suffering and terrible effects of this worldwide Environmental Crisis? The (seeming) fact that we, as a species, are destroying the very planet we inhabit? Other species, our victims, go extinct daily, there is human suffering, especially of the very poorest people, on an unprecedented scale, and not only are no solutions of any merit put forth, there is, indeed, very little acknowledgment of what is happening.
I am going to assume that you will say one must cultivate detachment, as that does, indeed, seem to be the only 'real' answer; and I accept that. But for those like myself, and my friend, who have not 'awakened', or truly realized Absolute Truth, and are people who feel all this as personal suffering and, worse, feel helpless to do anything, detachment is an attribute profoundly aspired to, yet seemingly inaccessible.
Here I am going to 'go out on a limb' and put forth a sort of theory of my own; I am coming to believe that some people's 'inate nature', for lack of a more precise term, simply precludes them from ever truly achieving the detachment so essential to Advaita. That, while they may totally understand Advaita intellectually, it can never be realized in a "total" sense due to this inability to achieve the necessary detachment. I also think, or suspect, that many people are in this category with me.
A: For the person who is involved with the world, convinced of their separateness and mortality, there will always be suffering. Someone who is particularly attached to ideas of worldly problems will be able to see them everywhere - the world is a big place and there are many people. And obviously there is little or nothing that one can do about the majority of those problems so that despair is the logical outcome.
If you are asking what one should do as an 'individual' about all of this, I can only refer you to the metaphor of the reservoir (see Book of One P. 106). Also, of course, the dream metaphor is always a good answer to most questions of this sort. Suppose you have a dream in which you find someone injured, say, and you are just about to call for an ambulance when you wake up. Having woken up, your concern for the injured person disappears completely because you now know that the entire incident was illusory. Similarly, the enlightened mind knows that the world, with its separate persons, global warming etc. is mithyA only. All is brahman and nothing needs to be done (or can be done because brahman does nothing). [Note that this is not to say that the realized man ignores those who are suffering around him. On the contrary, action will take place in response to the need, without any attachment, according to the nature of his body-mind.]
There is a nice quote by David Carse: "Taking the dream to be real is not what causes suffering; it is the suffering."
I have actually answered questions about suffering before. See 'Is suffering necessary'.
The solution is not to cultivate detachment as you suggest. If you still believe that there is suffering and you are ignoring it, this could only be construed as callous. The real solution is knowledge - to realize that there is no one who is suffering, that there is no world existing as a separate entity to be destroyed or unique species to become extinct etc. These are only the constantly changing forms of the non-dual reality, to which we in our ignorance give separate names and thereby conjure up problems where there are none. Ramana Maharshi said: "The world is alright as it is; it is we that are to blame, because of our own mistaken way of thinking." Ultimately, you have to realize that the world is in me; I am not in the world.
As regards how you should act towards your friend, simply stating ideas such as the above is unlikely to help. Knowledge of advaita has to be presented in a gradual way, ideally by a qualified, realized teacher. Bottom-line conclusions will simply be ridiculed by most intelligent people. All you can do is be sympathetic and supportive and perhaps hint that a philosophy exists which can bring us to the realization that the things are nowhere near so bad as they might appear; in fact, quite the contrary!
Q: I am coming to believe that some people's 'innate nature', for lack of a more precise term, simply precludes them from ever truly achieving the detachment so essential to Advaita. That, while they may totally understand Advaita intellectually, it can never be realized in a "total" sense due to this inability to achieve the necessary detachment. I also think, or suspect, that many people are in this category with me. Is this analysis correct?
A: 'No' is the short answer. If I ask you to close your eyes and then hold an article in front of your face and ask you to open them, you will see the object and (assuming it is a familiar one) you will have no choice but to recognize it. It is similar with self-knowledge. You already are brahman. It is just that this obvious truth is covered over by ignorance. If I present you with the salient pieces of self-knowledge that counter those mistaken views, you have no choice but to recognize them as true.
Peoples' nature may predispose them to be particularly interested in this or that in the world and this may make them unwilling to look into advaita. One of the key requirements is mumukShutva - the desire for enlightenment - and if someone does not have this, they are most unlikely to expose themselves to the teaching. This may have the same effect as your theory but the essence is quite different.
Q: On the one hand, I know that what advaita says is true but, on the other I still suffer emotional upheavals of fear and anger at the destruction and suffering that I see all over the 'world', and frequently feel helplessness and despair. Although I am still aware of the truth, it seems at such times to be reduced to the level of simply concepts or beliefs. It seems that Truth has no Power. I still KNOW I am Brahman, the world is in me, and all the destruction and extinctions and Global Warming etc. is 'the dream of appearance' only, but I cannot waken from it.
It seems that some people are simply not suited to Advaita. Maybe it will take 'many life times' before I have a full realization. Despite all my longing for and understanding of Truth, I seem to be just as mired in the nightmare in those bad periods, as if I had never heard or read about the Truth.
A: I do understand what you are saying and can sympathize.
I think the main point to note is that enlightenment does not bring the appearance to an end. Nor does it necessarily signify an end to personal suffering. If the mind was insufficiently prepared prior to enlightenment, then you will not automatically gain peace of mind - this will only come gradually as a result of a deepening understanding. And, of course, the body-mind will continue until its natural death, along with any pleasures and pains that accompany this. Knowing the truth, as you do, all that you need to do when the despair comes is remember that these apparent lapses will happen from time to time but that they always pass.
As regards, being affected by suffering, the Buddhist story of the woman who has just lost her child is a telling one. She is told by the Buddha that if she finds a house in the village which has not suffered the loss of a loved one, then he will bring the child back to life. She goes about the village, knocking on all the doors but of course is unable to find anywhere unaffected. Eventually, she realizes that suffering is intrinsic in life as long as we seek happiness outside of ourselves.
Enlightenment is knowing that you are not in the world; the world is an appearance within you, along with all its excitement and suffering. You are totally unaffected by it, as in the cinema screen metaphor. Again, as with the cinema, we become so involved with the story and the skilful acting that we take it as real and end up frightened or tearful.
The key practice in traditional advaita is shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. Once you have heard and understood all of the teaching, meditation on those truths will eventually bring the sought-for peace of mind.
Having read a little of several spiritual traditions,
I am under the impression that there are two main spiritual
A: I’m afraid my knowledge of other traditions is virtually nil so I cannot offer any comparisons. Also, the topic of advaita epistemology is quite a large one – there are whole books on it. There is actually a section in my next book (‘Enlightenment – the path through the jungle’) addressing the question you are asking but I will try to give a brief answer here.
Advaita says that knowledge ‘vRRitti-s’ occur in the mind as the teaching is unfolded by a teacher who is skilled in the techniques of the scriptures. This word does not really translate as ‘insight’. The point is that all of this is effectively already known, since it is our very nature. It is more in the way of recognition. The technique of bhAga tyAga lakShaNa is a good one to explain how it operates. So it is not a matter of ‘assimilation’. There are various metaphors which attempt to illustrate how the final enlightenment comes about. These range from the sudden switching-on of a light to fog clearing slowly. Intermediate between the two might be switching on a succession of spotlights. As one bit of teaching is given, understanding dawns and pieces of the overall ‘landscape’ of reality are permanently illuminated. When all of the spotlights have finally been turned on, all is clearly seen. With this metaphor, it could be said that enlightenment proceeds by sudden jumps but might be considered to be gradual overall. Hope this gives you some idea of advaita’s slant on the process.
As you may know Krishna devotees believe that Krishna is the Supreme Godhead, the supreme source of energy in the Universe - an energy that manifests itself in several different ways (material, spiritual, etc).
What do Advaitins believe about Krishna? Do they believe in the same qualities about Krishna as Krishna devotees, EXCEPT that Krishna is a manifestation of Brahman, and not the supreme source?
A: I am not an expert on Hindu Gods, I’m afraid. As you probably know, the Bhagavad Gita is equally highly regarded by both Dvaitins and Advaitins. The ‘characteristics’ of Krishna are acknowledged as having provisional validity in vyavahAra by Advaita but, as with the entire apparent universe, gods too are ultimately only mithyA. Since there is only the non-dual brahman in reality, every ’thing’ else is part of self-ignorance, to be realized eventually as nothing other than name and form. C.f. the rope-snake metaphor – asking about the qualities of Krishna is equivalent to asking whether the snake is poisonous or not.
Q: Ramana Maharshi advises focusing on the ‘Self’ through the path of self-inquiry by asking ‘who am I’. This quests seems to be internal. Other methods suggest being aware of sounds, space, body so that you can hold them all in your awareness, without exclusion of any one. Are these two paths contradictory or is there a relation between them where one leads to another?
Would appreciate a clarification on this point since I can’t seem to get anything on this difference.
A: The only true ‘path’ is the one of self-knowledge, our problem being one of self-ignorance. ‘Realization’ and self-knowledge are effectively the same thing. No practice of any kind is likely to bring about this knowledge; the best that practices can do is to prepare the mind to be able to recognize that knowledge when it arrives (which it usually does via a qualified teacher using the techniques of traditional advaita).
Ramana’s self-inquiry is at least a positive investigation, which can lead to an understanding that I am not what I have previously thought myself to be. ‘Being aware of things’ cannot ever provide enlightenment because there are no things and such an attitude can only propagate the false notion of duality. Where have you encountered this idea? I am not aware of any reference to it in advaita. Meditation in general is a useful practice for stilling the mind and inculcating self-discipline. Such things are valuable in the preparatory stage and form part of the sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti advocated by traditional advaita.
Q: I wrote to you over a year ago about seeing something new in my life. You stated that "Advaita is for those who have seen and done it all and have found there is nothing that works" (paraphrased) but I didn't listen and persued it anyway. There was much misery witnessed daily and I had identified with all of the misery and ideas about to who I am. I started to question everything via the books of an Advaita teacher. I read everything from his basic books to his advanced books but too quickly. I even started studying Maharaj consciousness and the Absolute. I suffer from alcoholism, PTSD, depression etc. - I feel like I have gone really crazy and can't get out of it. The teacher advised that I should not yet attempt to 'abide as the Absolute' but should get all the above issues resolved first, and that is happening. My question is: what should I do about 'giving up on everything that is in the relative'? How do I get out of this hole which some state as being sane and others think is insane?
A: Did you read ‘How to Meet Yourself’ as I suggested? This is the book that looks at the traditional views of meaning, purpose and happiness and provides a gentle introduction to Advaita.
The point is that life is all about misery and happiness (not always in equal proportions!) and nothing you can do will alter that. But who-you-really-are is not the body-mind that is living this life. In fact, this life, this world and universe, time and space are all no more than names and forms of the non-dual reality that you already are. As long as you believe yourself to be the very limited body-mind, you will continue effectively to be bound by all of these things about which you complain.
You cannot really decide to ‘give up on the relative’. What happens is that, as understanding of the truth grows, these things naturally assume less importance. It is like the child growing up and losing interest in toys. It may be that some discipline will help steady the mind and make it easier to assimilate this knowledge. (Certainly, it would not be possible to appreciate it if, for example, you were drunk all the time!) Ultimately, the only solution is self-knowledge. Practices may prepare the mind for this but what is eventually needed is a reliable source of this knowledge and for that you really need a teacher who has it and is able to convey it. If you firmly believe that you have found such a teacher then you will be able to listen to what he says and follow his guidance. (Presumably I will have heard of him if he has written books. The fact that you are writing to me to ask about it implies that you are unsure whether to have faith in his teaching.)
The bottom line is that you are not in a hole, neither sane nor insane. All of these are just mistaken ideas because you do not yet know who you really are.
Q: When I consider the difference between small "c" consciousness and big "C" Consciousness, I feel/understand consciousness, understood as an integral part (mutually arising) with its contents, but when I try to find a pulse for Consciousness, it all seems to look like revelation which is altogether unsatisfying. Is Consciousness "offered" as Truth, an all-encompassing One from which all else arises and is its emanations, but simply non-existent unless it is? (There is an experience without duration that either is or is not.)
A: Your question is couched in an extremely intellectual manner – are you a philosopher by any chance? The point is that you cannot investigate consciousness (or think about it or reason about it) because you, the subject are that consciousness. (Here, I am not attempting to differentiate between a small ‘c’ and capital ‘C’.) Whatever tools you used, whatever you discovered, it would be ‘you, the subject’ discovering it, whereas whatever you discovered would be objective.
The best way to appreciate the problem is to think in terms of the differentiation between paramArtha and vyavahAra (there are lots of essays and discussions on this at the website). All of any investigation, including the language in which you attempted to describe any ‘findings’ would all be part of the relative reality, vyavahAra. You can never make an investigation in paramArtha because that is the non-dual reality – there is no separate subject and an object to be investigated. If you can accept that, then all that needs to be said is that ‘Consciousness’, as I and most other advaitins use the term, is another name for that non-dual reality.
A: The name given by advaita to the absolute reality is ‘brahman’, and brahman is not a god (‘brahma’ is the title given to the ‘god’ who has created the [current] universe). Brahman being the unmanifest absolute reality, ‘knows’ no duality (hence ‘advaita’ – not two). There is nothing other than brahman. The apparent, empirical, dualistic universe is mithyA only, having no reality of its own, being simply name and form of brahman. Therefore, from the standpoint of the world, you could say that brahman ‘contains’ all apparent dualities, including good and evil. But these terms only have any meaning from the viewpoint of a jIva; one who believes the world to be real and himself to be a separate entity. Good and evil are relative terms; how could they have any meaning from an absolute non-dual standpoint?
If you want to ask a question, and do not object to its being included in this section, please email me.
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