Advaita Vision


Advaita for the 21st Century

Questions and Answers
Dennis Waite

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How to Meet Yourself cover   The Book of One cover  Back to the Truth cover  Enlightenment: the path through the jungle

Read extracts from and purchase my books: For beginners to Advaita - 'How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness);
For intermediate Advaita students - 'The Book of One';
For advanced students - 'Back to the Truth: 5000 Years of Advaita'.
For a comparison of teaching methods in advaita - 'Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle' .

Q: According to Karma Yoga, We have to "Work incessantly. Our duty is to work but not to expect the fruits thereof and you should not be attached to the work". But, how do we know what actions to do (good) and what to skip (evil)? For example, if you encounter a criminal who has a dangerous weapon and puts your life in danger, should you kill him (action) or allow him to kill you (inaction)? This is the extreme example.

And also if we go on doing actions (karma), which is an endless cycle, when will we attain liberation, which is renunciation of actions?

A: Karma yoga is about acting without any personal desire for a particular outcome at the moment of action as well as non-attachment to the results. You act simply in response to the needs of the moment as perceived in the moment. Problems arise when you start to think about it before acting, trying to decide what you ‘ought’ to do, what is likely to produce the optimum outcome and so on. Actions to ‘do good’ generate karma just as much as those that ‘do evil’ – the former results in puNya, the latter in pApa. Acting in response to the need generates no karma. The decision as to what to do in such a situation is made by buddhi as opposed to manas and it is not possible to generalize. The ‘correct’ action will depend upon the situation.

In the case of the criminal attack on your body, defence mechanisms are genetically built into the brain so it is extremely doubtful that such considerations would ever enter into it! It is conceivable that a j~nAna niShThA might make the decision to allow his body to be killed but this is somewhat hypothetical. As pointed out in the Gita by Krishna to Arjuna,  “Whoever thinks that Atman, or the Self does the killing or can be killed misunderstands. That (Self) doesn’t kill, nor is it ever killed. It is not born and it does not die. Unborn, eternal and ancient, the Self is not killed when the body is killed” (II 19-20). (Swami Satchidananda translation.)

Regarding your last question, liberation has nothing to do with action or inaction. It is attained when self-knowledge is gained.

Q: It is said that the "true goal of a man's life is to discover one's true nature i.e Atman which is Brahman". If Man's true nature is divine, how did he become ignorant in the first place? How did we get ignorant of our true nature? Being truly a divine and perfect soul, should we not have remained that way? What happened to our divine nature?

A: This is one of those questions that is ultimately unanswerable. Ignorance is said by advaita to be anAdi – beginningless. And who is it who is ignorant? Clearly the jIva – but then the jIva does not exist as an entity separate from brahman so that this means that brahman is ignorant – which is clearly nonsensical.

Swami Paramarthananda tells a story about a game he used to play as a child. They would take a child into a room that was entirely empty and then would place pillows about the room and stand the child up against one wall. He was told to memorize the positions of the pillows and then they blindfolded him. He was then told that he had to cross the room to the other wall without touching any of the pillows. The other children then watched as he very carefully edged  his way forward. Whenever they laughed, he would retreat and move sideways before trying again. Eventually he reached the other wall and was allowed to remove the blindfold. He then discovered, of course that all of the pillows had been removed before he began and that he had been moving across an empty floor trying to avoid non-existent objects.

And he says that mokSha is like this. As seekers, we make our way through life trying to avoid all the pitfalls of self-ignorance and arrive at the other wall of self-knowledge and enlightenment. But when we attain enlightenment, we realize that there never were any obstacles to begin with. In a sense, the ignorance was non-existent – tat tvam asi *already*.

Q: In my understanding maya is the appearance of appearances. It cannot be separated from Brahman. Brahman is real and maya isn´t - still it seems to appear in Brahman. Where else? Is this understanding in accordance with shruti or am I missing something?

In 'Back to the Truth' ( page 272), Dr. K. Sadananda  is quoted as saying "He (Brahman) cannot have avidya, since if he has it, he cannot be Brahman." Is not vidya as well as avidya part of the world of appearances, which is and is not Brahman?

Similar, on page 361 Prof. V. Krishnamurthy says: "The base of activity of maya cannot be Brahman because the latter is absolute luminosity and there is no place in it for ignorance or darkness." Why not? All is Brahman, so how can maya, ignorance or darkness be excluded?

Is there a difference between drishti srishti vada and vivarta vada, if yes, what is it? Would you agree that drishti srishti vada is what modern neurological research points to?

A: I think the key consideration regarding your questions is the distinction between paramArtha and vyavahAra (it usually is!).

In reality, there is only brahman and that is already saying too much. From the relative viewpoint, where all question and answer take place obviously, everything is mithyA. This is really only to say that whatever you can conceive or perceive is not ultimately real in itself; it is only name and form of the non-dual (pAramArthika) reality. What happens in the teaching of advaita is that interim ‘explanations’ are put forward to provide an understanding that is a little closer to the truth (or at least less false) than the supposed understanding that was there previously. (This is the technique of adhyAropa – apavAda that is explained in the book.) And there is no exception to this because we can never say anything about reality that is really true. Accordingly, the concepts of Ishvara wielding the power of mAyA to create the appearance of the world etc. are no more than interim explanations to satisfy the seeker at a particular point in his or her ‘path’. The reality is that there has never been any creation. There are no separate jIva-s and no mAyA to delude them. There is only brahman, as you have noted.

That it ‘seems’ as though there is a world and that we are separate and so on is attributed to mAyA until we are better able to appreciate the truth. It is like telling a child that babies are brought by the storks (perhaps!) If they are unable to appreciate the unexpurgated details, it at least shuts them up for the time being! Advaita also tells us that we are ‘not the body, mind etc’ (neti, neti) but, since all is brahman, we must ultimately be those too. Explanations have to be provided at the present level of understanding. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for the seeker to find a teaching which is geared to that level and can progressively take them to higher and higher levels. Simply attending a random satsang, on no particular subject, with all levels of students present, is exceedingly unlikely to provide answers to their own particular questions (even assuming that the teacher is qualified to be able to answer).

Your next question also seems to be confusing vyavahAra and paramArtha. The point is that duality is never real. There is only seeming duality within vyavahAra as a result of the beginningless, inexplicable ignorance. Because of this, the apparent, separate jIva superimposes false attributes upon the non-dual reality. Yes there are paradoxes throughout this teaching but this is because of the same problem described above. So there appears to be knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness. Pedantically, I would have to agree with your objection to Profvk’s statement. You cannot really talk about brahman being ‘absolute luminosity’. This is why we have to postulate Ishvara as the one who controls mAyA and not brahman. It is a dualistic solution to an apparent problem which may satisfy until we are better able to appreciate that it is really not a solution at all.

The subject of creation theories is a bit like the waker trying to decide whether person A or person B was correct in some discussion that took place in his dream last night. The ultimate truth is that there has never been any creation. In any case, questions about the relationship between a perceiver and creation make no sense. Ask yourself whether the perceiver is part of the world or not and see where that leads you! dRRiShTi-sRRiShTi-vAda is not part of advaita anyway, really. Shankara said that an object had to exist in order for it to be perceived. vivarta vAda goes along with Ishvara and mAyA and provides the temporary explanation that the creation is effectively an illusion created by Ishvara, which is not the same as being created by the jIva. It is true that the jIva is really brahman and Ishvara is really brahman but this does not equate Ishvara with the jIva. It is like saying that the wave and the ocean are both water but a wave is clearly not the ocean. (Incidentally, you might find it helpful to read Vidyasankar Sundaresan’s essay on creation theories.

Q: Advaita seems to require a lot of reading. As a student who aims at enlightenment, I wonder if it is sufficient to study one text intensely and repetitively instead of studying many different texts.
I also wonder if it is sufficient simply to consider the three propositions (Brahman alone is real; The world is maya; Jiva is Brahman) over and over again.
I find myself frequently doing this following exercise. I consider the mistaken equation "I am this thing or that thing." And then I consider that this I, this pure subject, this pure awareness, cannot possibly be "this thing or that thing." I wonder if this method is sufficient for enlightenment.

A: Studying a single text is not really a good idea. The problem is that, if you misunderstand something, that misunderstanding is simply going to be reinforced by repeated reading. If, on the other hand, you read a different presentation of the same topic, you may see the contradiction and then rectify your view.

A good example is in your suggestion of reflecting on “Brahman alone is real; The world is mAyA; jIva is Brahman”. This is a crucial misunderstanding of the statement, which should be that the world is mithyA. mAyA is the supposed power that brings about the world appearance.

This also illustrates that reading is not actually a very reliable source of knowledge. Ideally you need a qualified teacher who can discuss a topic with you and ensure that you have the correct understanding.

Finally, doing exercises of any kind is not likely to bring about enlightenment. We are already brahman, we just do not realize this – i.e. there is self-ignorance in the mind. What is needed to eliminate this is self-knowledge. The main source of such knowledge is the scriptures, which really need to be explained by a teacher.

Q: So far as I understand, Advaita teaches one final enlightenment, after which there is nothing to do. To reach this enlightenment, one must remove ignorance.
Some teachers from other traditions say that we can begin cultivation only after we realise the truth.
For instance, when I was seventeen, I was meditating one day, and as I stepped out onto my backyard, I suddenly realised that my body is not me and cannot be enlightened, my mind is not me and cannot be enlightened, and awareness never changes and cannot be enlightened. Then I realised there was no one to be enlightened. And then for the next three days, I felt a deep contentment. But then after the three days, I returned to normal and the frustrations of normal life.
Now according to some teachers (or so I understand them), no matter how many spiritual experiences (like the above) I have, I cannot achieve enlightenment unless I devote every single moment of my life to purifying my mind (from attachments and adversions). Some say I cannot achieve enlightenment unless there is total surrender from my ego.
I wonder, if I study Advaita only a few hours a day, but remain attached to sensual experiences and false conceptions the rest of the day, will that the accumulated effort of studying eventually wear through my ignorance?
When you studied Advaita, did you make a conscious effort to purify your mind and live as the Presence (in the words of Eckhart Tolle and Adyashanti). Or did you put your total faith in the liberating power of Advaita philosophy and scriptures (instead of momentary, everyday cultivation)?

A: Advaita teaches that there is ‘enlightenment’, after which one may be referred to as a j~nAnI (i.e. one who knows the truth) and then there are the ‘fruits of enlightenment’ – jIvanmukti – which bring the ‘benefits’ of peace of mind etc. For someone who is fully prepared mentally prior to enlightenment (as per Shankara’s chatuShTaya sampatti), the fruits accompany enlightenment. For those who were not fully prepared,  further nididhyAsana is required. Note that mental preparation and practices such as meditation do not in themselves bring about enlightenment – for that, only self-knowledge is effective. But the preparation makes it more likely that knowledge will be heard and recognised when it is given. Those who have had no preparation at all cannot become a j~nAnI. Hope this clarifies.

Q: May I ask about an aspect of Advaita which regularly puzzles me ?   In an earlier answer on your website you state that "Enlightenment is of the mind, the self-knowledge that destroys the self-ignorance takes place in the mind."

It may be that I am confusing absolute and relative realities, but are you implying that there exists a state of self-ignorance which needs to be replaced by a state of self-knowledge ?... and that this is a mental process occurring over time ?

If Brahman is All, would that not include all apparent 'states' ?  Is not apparent 'self-ignorance' also an expression of Oneness ?   Would not any attempt to move from one state to another (or indeed the statement that there are two states) be an expression of dualistic thinking ?

I agree that the concept of 'enlightenment' is of the mind, which results in an apparent 'seeker'.  Are you of the opinion that we are all 'liberated' but as yet don't know it ... and that through some sort of teaching, we can attain to this knowledge ?  

If the Ultimate state of Awareness is our Present state of Awareness, there is clearly no way to cause or produce that which is already the case - and even if we could, the result would finite and dual.  As Eckhart stated, if we imagine God can be found in a particular state of consciousness, then when that state slips from us, so God slips with it.

A: You are right – this is the sort of confusion of paramArtha and vyavahAra that often occurs when speaking about enlightenment. At the level of vyavahAra, which is where all of this discussion takes place between (apparently) separate persons, self-ignorance is the normal condition of most minds. With the benefit of good teaching, this may be supplanted (in the mind) by self-knowledge. When this occurs (in time), we say that the person has become ‘enlightened’.

You are also right that, ‘self-ignorance’ is “also an expression of Oneness”. Since there is only brahman, this must necessarily be so – from the pAramArthika standpoint. But this does not preclude changes of state at the level of vyavahAra. It simply depends upon where you ‘take your stand’. Advaita ‘encompasses’ dvaita. Apparent duality is simply misperceived non-duality.

 You ask: “Are you of the opinion that we are all 'liberated' but as yet don't know it ... and that through some sort of teaching, we can attain to this knowledge ? “ This is a confusion of terms again – hence the difficulty. Yes, we are already free – i.e. we cannot be ‘liberated’ but no, most people are not already ‘enlightened’. Accordingly, it is perfectly meaningful that self-knowledge can be taught and can lead to enlightenment. Enlightenment is the realisation that we are already free!

Q: How do you pronunce 'advaita'? Is it "ad - vay - ta" or "ad - vye - ta"? I've heard both used.

A: It’s actually  ad – wye (as in the river) – ta if you live in the UK. If you live in the US, it’s ad – vie (as in pie) – ta. Pedantically, if you abide by the logical structure of the language, the former is the correct one, since the semi-vowel ‘v’ is formed by combining the two vowels ‘u’ and ‘a’. And, if you say ‘oo’ and ‘a’ quickly one after the other, you get a ‘wa’ sound and not a ‘va’ one.

Useful question – I am sure lot’s of others fail to pronounce it correctly, even though they pursue the philosophy.

Q: How would I go about approaching the material in the 'Book of One' - for a Real understanding?" Lately its been therapy/psychodrama, AA once in a while, and around it all is just trying to be more present. The problem is that I keep falling to sleep and then get caught in some persona or another but I try to realize this and get back to the just staying present. I spend as much free time I have seeing the background of it all.

A: I think you should treat the book just as an enjoyable (hopefully!) but thought provoking way of passing the time. It is not a manual for realizing the truth so there is no particular way of going about reading it. If, having read it, you are convinced that advaita provides a means of understanding the truth, then perhaps you should go about finding a genuine teacher, who can address your own specific problems. Note that you are unlikely to discover the truth on your own. That there is only a non-dual reality and that ‘you are That’ are not intuitively obvious! If you are still not convinced, you can read ‘Back to the Truth’, which looks at everything in more detail through the words of many other teachers and writers.

Enlightenment is only secondarily about peace of mind and reconciliation with life. It is primarily about self-knowledge. It is not about being in the present per se, nor about avoiding bad experiences. But it is true that identification with the roles that you play will occur less and less as your understanding grows.

It is relatively easy to gain information from books but much less easy to gain self-knowledge. It is, however, true that you need a receptive mind in order to be able to assimilate the truth of advaita. So the therapy etc. may well have been useful in this respect. If your desire to find out the truth about yourself is sufficiently intense, you will not have any problem.

Q: In the book, you mention, j~nAna and TM.  I know how to practice TM twice a day but j~nAna - I haven't got a clue what to do with that or where to even begin. Can you suggest a starting point for j~nAna?

A: You are already doing it! The point is that the universal problem is self-ignorance and the only solution to that is self-knowledge. The person ‘follows the path’ of j~nAna yoga, the yoga of knowledge, by learning all about the nature of self and the world. This is not in the sense of acquiring information but in the sense of seeing for oneself what is actually the case. It is done ideally with the help of a teacher. The next best thing is to read good books and discuss them/ask questions from others ‘further along the path’. When you have seen everything, the mind is said to have gained self-knowledge and the person is said to be ‘enlightened’ or to have become a j~nAnI.

Q: I've just been looking at the kena, katha, Ishavasya, and mandukya upanishads. All very beautiful but all are very intense. So my first question is: Does understanding these upanishads take time or should they make sense immediately?

My second question is whether, through enough study and analysis of scripture, plus bhakti, karma and jnAna yoga, the tamas can really fade?

Lastly, several of the things you say do not tally with what I have read and been told by other teachers:

1. There is no mind; that the realized don't have a mind.
2. That the Self is not the ultimate goal while manifested here; that if you stay in the Self, problems will eventually appear again; that you must reside in Awareness.
3. That you need to live in a place in which awareness in not even aware of its awareness.Then, another book says, 'know the emptiness'.

Can you clarify?

A: The Upanishads are not easy material. They were always intended to be passed down by a teacher and explained bit by bit. They are very abbreviated, couched in archaic language, utilizing myths and metaphors from an ancient time. And, of course, they were written in Sanskrit so you are also relying on the ability of the translator to put them into English that is understandable by the average twenty first century westerner. So, no, you should not expect to understand them right away!

If you are looking for less tamas in your life, then karma and bhakti yoga will help and probably the best practice of all is meditation – regularly for twice a day, half-an-hour each session without fail. The mind will become more peaceful, concentration will improve etc. (but not immediately – you should expect difficulty in the early days and then a gradual improvement over months and years rather than days or weeks. If what you want is enlightenment, then these things are valuable but will not in themselves bring it about – for that knowledge is the only solution.

Regarding your last three questions:

  1. The realized man has a mind just like everyone else. How could he function in the world without one? The difference between the enlightened mind and the unenlightened is the presence of self-knowledge in the former.
  2. According to traditional advaita, the ultimate goal of man is mokSha, which should be understood as the gaining of self-knowledge. (In reality, man is already brahman so is already ‘free’ but the mind of the unenlightened person does not realize this.) Whether or not a person is enlightened, the body-mind will still experience pleasure and pain; i.e. ‘problems’ will still arise. The difference is that the enlightened person knows that he or she is not the body-mind and so accordingly does not undergo ‘suffering’ as a result of whatever happens. (He knows that who-he-really-is cannot be affected by anything.)
  3. I don’t know what you mean by this one, I’m afraid. When you are enlightened, you know the truth and nothing can ever take this knowledge away from you. It is the knowledge that you are brahman; you are absolute knowledge-consciousness, without limit. What has this got to do with emptiness?

Q: What is the difference in the experience of dying between one who has realized and one who has not?

A: Interesting question! However, the answer has to be: how would anyone ever know?

If someone actually dies, they are no longer able to tell us. If they just have a ‘near death experience’, they don’t actually die so all we have is a description of what is seen/felt as the brain starts to close down and is flooded with unusual hormone combinations (perhaps). So all that we can usefully talk about is the attitude to dying. Here, the situation is much more clear-cut.

The ordinary person believes that ‘who-they-really-are’ dies. They may believe that this will be total annihilation or perhaps they think that they will go to heaven or hell or perhaps be reborn in another body. Whichever is the case, the death-event will almost certainly be something to fear above all else. The realized person, on the other hand, knows that only the body-mind dies, while ‘who-they-really-are’ is totally unaffected. The metaphor of a pot breaking is often used – the space that was thought to be ‘contained’ within the pot remains totally unaffected – it was always the case that the pot was in space, not the other way round.

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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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012