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: Does brahman have 'room' for the spark of unique individuality that is in all living organisms: humans, animals, plants, stones, ideas? Or is all this precious individuality forever lost in the oneness?

A: So-called 'individuality' is related to the attributes and not the essence. In vyavahAra, each person, creature or object has its own individual characteristics. There is no question of 'losing' this, only of recognizing that this individuality is only apparent; the ever-changing, now beautiful, now ugly but always only the seeming surface characteristic of what is always one reality. It is the outward differing manifestation of the inner unity. Since all is always That, how could there not be room for it?

Q: I've been taking antidepressant medications for some time.  As a pharmacist who dispenses countless prescriptions for these drugs, my observation is that they may have some value in severe clinical depression, although their mode of action is unknown and their efficacy and safety cannot withstand rigorous scientific scrutiny.

When I was going through a difficult period some years ago, I became somewhat depressed and, as is generally the case, an MD prescribed Effexor, a popular AD drug.  It was not particularly helpful, if at all, but I continued its use based on the doctor's recommendation.

I'm still taking antidepressants, although my doctor thinks at this point they're probably irrelevant to any existing emotional problems I have, which are few.  However, withdrawal from these meds can be extremely difficult, even when tapered slowly and, although I consider my progress and development unrelated to ADs, I'm nevertheless frightened to discontinue them.

I read your viewpoint on this issue in the Q&A section of your website, and found it very discouraging.  I've progressed well and learned much about Oneness, with your work as one of my prime sources! Knowing, of course, that neither of us is a physician, can you definitively say that these drugs will preclude the development of spiritual progress?

I only ask because, as I've stated, I've put a lot of time and effort into studying non-dualism, and I'd hate to think I've been operating at half-power and am limited in my progress by virtue of taking these meds.  I love this area of study, and any encouragement at this point would be very welcome.

A: I stand by what was written in principle but I am no expert on the effects on the brain of modern anti-depressant drugs. It may well be that they do not affect one’s ability to reason or discriminate. Perhaps they only dull any negative emotional reaction to external events. If this is this case, then perhaps their possible role in the mind’s ability to realize the truth is minimal or even non-existent. Certainly, if the result of stopping the medication were depression or any other activity decreasing clarity of the mind, then to stop them would be worse than continuing… at least in the short term.
What I would recommend (what I would do in your situation) is that you see your doctor and explain the problem – namely that you want to come off the ADs but are concerned about the withdrawal symptoms. Maybe it is possible to counter these by short-term treatment with other drugs that do not have any withdrawal problems of their own?
Whatever the case, the bottom line is that you are not the brain! It is an instrument for your use in this apparent embodiment. Any instrument functions optimally when it is well looked after, polished, lubricated etc, as appropriate. But you do have to work with whatever instrument happens to be available. Some can run a marathon with the body that they happen to have, others cannot. Running marathons is not  an essential part of life. It is clear from your writing that you are perfectly able to think logically and put ideas into order etc. You certainly do not have to be a professor of philosophy in order to become enlightened!
So, I would definitely pursue the giving-up of ADs, since it does sound as though you no longer actually need them. But I would also stop worrying that taking them (or not taking them) is impeding your ‘progress’. The whole topic is a ‘side issue’ that is taking away your attention from the true ‘path’. Your real progress will be determined by the extent/degree to which you seek to answer questions relating to self-knowledge.

Q: I'm going to be 50 years old very soon and have done everything and can't find a true lasting solution. I feel the more I've done and more I've read, I get more confused. I feel so much guilt in my life about so many things, so many problems with fear and depression, I just can't seem to be able to be consistent and happy. I'm an alcoholic and have been sober for nearly three years now, and still find myself unable to feel happiness. Is there a little hope that maybe I might be able to live in this world without it affecting me, regardless of the insanity and contradictions?

So I come to you asking for a possible way of, I guess just being happy, regardless of all the problems in the world and all the problems of my physical, mental, spiritual life. Can you suggest something. I'm in therapy; I'm in and out of Alcoholics anonymous and worked the 12 steps strenuously, still not getting what they promised me, and if I wasn't feeling okay, all these alcoholics would tell me that I'm not trusting God  and that I suffer from agnosticism and lack of faith in God. It seems that all of these alcoholics eventually come together to worship this punishing God, that I don't even want to know. For so long I believed that I should suffer because these so called 'spiritual beings' were more connected than I was, so they knew better than me. Help, please!

A: If you are looking for personal happiness or an end to personal unhappiness, then advaita is not the answer. Advaita is about the realization that there is no person, that who you really are is already limitless, full and complete. One comes to advaita when it has been accepted that lasting happiness is never going to be found in people or things (including alcohol!) – how can anything that is transient and ever-changing bring lasting happiness?
If your nature is not amenable to belief in an external god that can be trusted and worshipped (as is my own), then it is pointless associating with any teaching that insists that this is necessary.  My suggestion would be that you accept once and for all that this world and this life will never provide true happiness for anyone (not just you). This does not mean that you reject the world but that you determine to look elsewhere, namely within rather than outside for any ‘truth’. If you can genuinely do this and resolve totally to pursue the truth without reservation, then you have a purpose that can overcome any obstacle. All that you then need to do is commit to some clear path to help you pursue that end.

Q: I have come to understand that advaita makes sense but obviously don't know all the implications.

Here is my understanding:
a. Good or bad does not exist: all that exists is karma and its fruit.
b. If a particular path is pursued it leads to mokSha [for the unrealized].
c. For the realized this definition has no meaning, for even 'bad' is as neutral as 'good'.
d. For those who are still unrealized, if they perform tasks without attachment, the words 'good' and 'bad' lose their significance.

Does this understanding make sense?

A: This is another of those questions where you have to differentiate carefully between absolute and relative reality (paramArtha and vyavahAra).
Good and bad DO exist at the relative level of world and people. While you still believe yourself to be a person, acting in the world, you are obliged to follow the moral code of society and you should never act so as to injure another. By acting intentionally for good or bad you incur karma. All this is saying is that effect will follow cause in the usually accepted manner (although we may not always see the connections).
from the standpoint of paramArtha, there is only the non-dual brahman - no action, no change, full, complete, limitless.
Doing good in the world will incur good karma (puNya); doing bad will incur bad karma (pApa). Neither leads to mokSha. Realization of the truth (that we are already free) only comes when the ignorance (that tells us that we are not free) is removed. Thus, what is needed for mokSha is self-knowledge.
The realized man does not lose his senses, his mind or his memory. Though he now knows that the essence of the world is non-dual, he still SEES the duality. He sees the forms, remembers the names and that the 'other' jIva-s are still ignorant. He still remembers the meaning of good and bad from that relative viewpoint, even though he now knows that the Self is totally unaffected by either and, indeed, encompasses both.

Q: I understand that we are all the same being. But are other people out there having their own subjective experiences like me? Or are they simply projections?

A: From the standpoint of absolute reality, there are not two.
While this truth is still covered over by ignorance, there seems to be a separate world containing separate people, although all of this is simply name and form of that absolute reality. Advaita provides an 'interim' explanation, for those as yet unable to appreciate the absolute truth. This is that the world is created and that the illusion of separateness is due to a power called mAyA, which is wielded by Ishvara, the Lord of all.
From this relative standpoint, the world and people are a reality. It is not projected by you, the individual – that idea is called solipsism and has nothing to do with advaita. And, of course, we 'each' have our own separate experiences (you are communicating with me).
The best metaphor to think of, if you find this concept difficult, is the one of wave and ocean. At the 'relative level', the wave is a part of the ocean (the individual is a part of Ishvara) but from the standpoint of 'absolute reality', both wave and ocean are always nothing but water (individual and Ishvara are both actually brahman alone).

Q: Although Krishnamurti famously said that truth is a pathless land, I do look forward to your book on the path through the jungle. In the meantime, before I get my hands on your new book and my feet on the said path, may I ask you if you consider Pamela Wilson and Adyashanti as Neo-Advaitins or would you place them in some other category?

A: I think the simplest way of answering your question is to say that there is only one traditional path in advaita and that is the one that follows the proven methods of the past thousand plus years, ideally presented by a teacher who is both enlightened and a part of that tradition. And those whom I call neo-advaitins are the ones who deny that there is a seeker, a path and a world of duality that is seemingly real and who claim that practice is pointless because there is no doer and nothing to do... and so on.

In between, if you like, there are those teachers who 'teach' by answering questions at satsangs and on residential courses. What they teach varies tremendously. A few may be familiar with advaita scriptures and make some use of them; many may loosely 'follow' Ramana or Nisargadatta; more and more seem to be adopting the neo-advaitin 'message' (possibly because it is easiest to pick up and pass on?); and a lot adopt various new-age stances or address the psychological well-being of the 'seeker'.

What I attempt to demonstrate in the book is that *only* the traditional approach is likely to be effective in bringing about enlightenment.

Q: I had always thought you a traditional advaitin. How do you rationalize your lack of belief in free will with this? 

A: No problem. All of the teaching of advaita is provisional, appropriate to the level of understanding. The ultimate truth of traditional advaita is the same as that of the neo-advaitins – no creation, no persons to have free will etc, no god(s), no time. It’s just that, for me, the concept of free will has never been helpful (or, alternatively, the concept of no free will has never been an obstacle).

Q: I am having difficulty with something that Nisargadatta Maharaj is quoted as saying: "Once you know that the body alone dies and not the continuity of memory and the sense of I am reflected in it, you are afraid no longer."

Surely when the body dies there can be no memory as there is no instrument to cognize with. The brain holds the memory which is made up of mindstuff, and when that dies surely there can be no persistence of memory? Maybe the quote is a translation mistake?”

A: Nisargadatta was part of a formal sampradAya, which meant that he was essentially teaching traditional advaita (although he became somewhat extreme, especially toward the end of his life!) According to traditional advaita, the mind is NOT part of the gross body but an effectively separable ‘subtle’ body. This does not die when the physical body dies but transmigrates. Actions in this life generate merit and demerit according to the motives of those actions. Every ‘cause’ must eventually have its ‘effect’. These stored ‘causal’ elements DO survive death and are reborn in a new body in order that the effects may ensue in due course. But the personal memory is not an aspect of this and does not reincarnate. As the questioner notes, the memory dies with the brain.

Accordingly, Nisargadatta must have been referring to the continuity of the jIva, with the saMskAra held in the subtle body. As the responder in your post indicates, a skilled teacher will answer the questions at the students level of, or readiness for, understanding. For some students, the concept of reincarnation is one that 'strike a chord' and provide satisfactory answers 'for the time being'. There comes a time, if the student continues to study, assimilate and validate the teaching, when these explanations no longer satisfy and a different approach is needed. All study, question and answer, experience, student and teacher and the world of objects are at the 'empirical' level of reality. 'Truth', in the absolute sense, is always only One - there is only the non-dual brahman.

Q: I am about to begin study of the Brahma Sutras commentary from  Shankaracharya. All of the various schools are about knowledge of Brahman but they differ in their approach. As far as I can see, Shankara is leading the seeker to Brahman through a philosophical approach to Vedanta, but others were not able to follow this path (j~nAna?). Those such as Sri Ramanuja approached Vedanta through rituals (bhakti?).

Now, since I am now more attracted to the intellectual path (been trying bhakti my whole life and cannot give praise to external powers as easily as others), can I practice j~nAna solely? There is no need for bhakti as a primary but may it be a secondary? Please help - I am a bit confused, especially now with satsang and ne-teachers. I am also going to get your book (Enlightenment Path through jungle) because, from the Ebook you sent, it seems that the neo teaching is based on shortcuts and I don't think this is a good idea.

A: Best of luck with the BS commentary! I have never succeeded in completing these (in fact can scarcely claim to have made significant inroads). Whose commentary are you reading? If you find Swami Gambhirananda’s too difficult, V. H. Date’s ‘Vedanta Explained’ is much more approachable.

Ramanuja and Madhva are not non-dualists so you will not be learning about Advaita if you study works based upon their commentaries.

Certainly you may follow the path of j~nAna alone. The traditional (advaita) view is that bhakti and karma yoga are ‘preliminary’ to j~nAna for those whose nature is more suited to those approaches. Some will argue that all three effectively merge anyway as you progress but the bottom line is that only self-knowledge can remove self-ignorance.

Definitely you are making the right decision to turn away from neo-advaita if you want to make progress in understanding. But there is no instant solution. You may find it hard-going to begin with (especially if you try to study the BS bhAShya!) but remember what the Bhagavad Gita says about this: The happiness that comes from stillness of mind is like poison in the beginning but like nectar in the end.  But the happiness that comes from senses and objects, though like nectar in the beginning, turns to poison in the end. (XVII. 37 – 8) So perseverance is the key!

Q: On reading several of the essays by Dr. Sadananda, it struck me that there should be no means of knowledge required to know the Self as 'I am that I am', since it is not an object. But I guess a means of knowledge is required to drop that veil and purify the mind as they say. At some point, maybe one doesn’t require the guide and that ‘knowledge’ is recognized.

As Dr. Sadananda puts it in ‘Experience vs. Knowledge’ :
“No means of knowledge is required to know that I am there or that I am a conscious entity. I am a self-evident and self-conscious entity, which Vedanta calls aprameya. (prameya is a thing to be known, or an object for a ‘pramANa’; aprameya means I am not an object for any pramANa.) In fact all pramANa-s, including veda pramANa are validated by me since I am there and I am a conscious entity able to validate them. A Self-existent and self-conscious entity need not be known or experienced. Or should I say ‘I cannot be known or experienced either, since whatever can be known or experienced is an object or inert entity’? …”

But, his essay on ‘Vedanta as Pramana’ had me confused. He says:
“…For the spiritual knowledge that we are seeking, perceptual and inferential knowledge are both useless. At the best they are secondary or supportive but do not give direct knowledge because the subject ‘I’ cannot be objectified. If it can be objectified then it is no longer a subject. Hence the only means of knowledge to know about the self is shabda pramANa (words of dependable reporters), which in this case is veda pramANa or shAstra pramANa. ...Therefore what is pramANa has to be clear – it is the means of knowledge and Vedanta provides that means of knowledge about the Absolute…”

These two seem to be contradictory but I think I have misunderstood something. Can you clarify what exactly is shabda pramANa required for? Why is it necessary to know who I am when there is no distance between the two? If it is required to clean up the mind, then why can’t other methods be useful to clean up the mind? Why is the Vedanta the only means to do so?

This leads me to a second question. Does that mean that Bhakti Yoga and other forms of Yoga are NOT alternate paths to the state of j~nAna but preparatory stages? I read somewhere that Karma Yoga is required more for the four qualifications of sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti rather than an alternate path.

And what about other ‘ism’s’ such as Buddhism, Zen, Tao etc? Are these considered to be in keeping with Vedanta or not? Are they valid means to recognize the true Self?

A: I do not need anyone or anything to tell me that I exist. But I do not initially (think that) I know anything about brahman. brahman is not and cannot be an object of knowledge. Therefore, I am never going to discover brahman by looking for it. The scriptures provide pointers and metaphors etc. to explain to us what brahman is and then they reveal a) that ‘I am brahman’ and b) that ‘everything is brahman’. There is no other source for this knowledge.

It is possible that you are confusing knowledge with experience. It is certainly true that no means of knowledge is required for me to experience brahman – this happens every night in deep sleep – but I am ignorant of it. It is because of this ignorance that self-knowledge is the only solution. Worship (bhakti), right action (karma), meditation etc. cannot themselves bring about self-realization. You should also be careful not to confuse relative and absolute – it is the mind that is seeking to understand all of this at the relative level, despite the fact that I am (already) brahman.

I assume that Zen, Taoism etc, also have valid methods but I’m afraid I do not know anything about these.

Hope this has answered your question. If not, you can rephrase the question or I am happy to refer it to Dr. Sadananda if you like.

Q: Thanks Dennis. I think it has. I suppose the pramANa is necessary for the mind to know ABOUT the natural state and be convinced of it, totally. Is that so? And once the mind is pure enough and the conviction is total, I will just ‘recognize’ it?

A: That’s right, yes. Read the explanation of bhAga-tyAga-lakShaNa to see how gaining this knowledge operates.

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