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: [I've had a powerful religious experience and wonder if it is enlightenment.]

A: The thing to remember in relation to experiences such as these is that enlightenment is the same thing as self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is not an experience; all experiences have a beginning and an end in time. I have had several discussions in the past with various people on the subject of near death experiences (NDE). People who have had these or read about them set great store by them and genuinely believe that they have some sort of transcendental meaning. But if you read the books of Susan Blackmore you will discover that there are perfectly reasonable scientific explanations for these, down to the finest detail. All is explicable without any need to resort to gods, life after death etc.

Similarly, one is often told, when embarking on a formal, prolonged practice of meditation, that strange sounds, lights, visions etc. have nothing to do with it. If and when these are experienced, put it down to sensory deprivation, heightened imagination, dream or hallucination. They never have anything to do with reality or enlightenment. The true benefit of meditation is in the silence. True silence, without thought or perception, is also without duality. It is the consciousness alone illuminating nothing.

None of this is intended to negate the value of any experience you might have had. If such a thing is causal in instigating a spiritual seeking, it has been of value. But, in reality, there is no god, no ego etc. – there is only the Self.

Don’t worry about the idea of progress. If you are understanding and learning from your sessions with Nathan, then that is enough. You are already free; you just don’t yet know it!

Q: Is it valid to ask 'who awakens?' How this question is answered reveals the major underlying difference between traditional Advaita and so called Neo Advaita. Traditionalists say that it is the person that awakens, becomes enlightened. Most 'Neo Advaitins' would say that Oneness is already the case, therefore enlightenment has no significance.

Each perspective recognizes difficulties in the other.

1. The person becomes enlightened.

It appears of course that a body/mind is necessary for recognition to occur, but at the 'point' of recognition it is known beyond doubt that the body/mind is just an appearance in what I am. It cannot be correct therefore to say that the body/mind has become realized. Realization is not an attribute of the body/mind.

2. Oneness is already the case.

Yes, Oneness is already the case but unless that is 'known' beyond doubt, insight (enlightenment) has not 'occurred'. The 'Neo Advaitin' might respond that absence of recognition is Oneness appearing as 'not recognizing'. But this understanding itself assumes recognition (and thereby confirms its necessity.)

How is this resolved?

Perspective 1 works from the stance (so to speak) of 'prior' to the 'realization event' within the appearance of separation. Here it seems wholly correct to say that it is the body/mind that becomes realized since this is all we have to work with via the gradual unfolding of knowledge.

Perspective 2 works only and always from the 'outlook' of realization. From here, the body/mind, 'prior-ness', AND the realization itself are known to be appearances in what I am - and what I am, could never be lacking.


Both perspectives are consistent with their respective context of either 1. teacher or 2. reporter.

1. The teacher starts with how we appear and guides us to the recognition of what we really are.

2.  The reporter starts and ends with the description of what we already are (that which is always already the case.)

The validity of the perspective and the lucidity of its statements etc. is dependent on recognizing the context of the communication; guide or report.

PS  The mode/means of communication of reporter and teacher are probably as distinct as painter and film maker - yet both point to the same reality (only one employs a method of unfoldment.)

A: Yes, I agree with all you say.

In order to avoid confusion, I prefer to use the term ‘liberated’ or ‘free’ to refer to what we already are, whether or not this is realized. This then allows a definition of ‘enlightenment’ as ‘the realization that we are already free’.

I think that the sunrise metaphor explains why what the neo-advaita teacher says cannot really work. Suppose that there is one scientist, who understands the output of Newton, Kepler, Copernicus etc. and actually *knows* that the earth rotates and goes round the sun. But suppose that all of the people to whom he is talking have the scientific understanding of the middle ages. Their direct experience is that the sun rises, moves across the sky and then sets. How can you tell them the truth such that they immediately realize the reality? It simply would not work. You would need to explain some basic principles, show them models, let them look through a telescope and so on before they started to appreciate what it was you were actually saying.

Recognizing that the neo-advaita teacher is a ‘reporter’ does not give them special credibility when there are also reporters around who claim that they communicate directly with dead people or aliens etc. What is said has to be reasonable and not conflict with other sources of valid knowledge.

I have always acknowledge that what the (genuine) neo-advaita teachers say is the truth, just that simply stating this has no utility for most seekers (i.e. the unprepared ones).

Q: Absolute Reality is said to be free of or beyond all qualities and yet it is also said Its nature is Sat-Chid-Ananda. Since Vedanta is a logical and reasonable path, please help us understand this apparent contradiction.

A: Good question! It is certainly true that Absolute Reality (brahman or turIya) cannot be ‘described’. Language is dualistic so that this must be so. However, this is not the same as saying that we cannot ‘point’ in the right direction. Words such as sat (existence), chit (consciousness) and anantam (limitlessness) are called lakShaNa-s. The word lakShaNa is often translated as ‘pointer’. The dictionary translates it variously as ‘accurate description, definition, illustration’ and ‘characteristic, attribute, quality’ but ‘indicating, expressing indirectly’ is the better translation. It is a ‘definition’ in the sense of ‘revealing’ the object, rather than restricting it in any way. Since there is *only* brahman, words such as these do not function to differentiate (c.f. the ‘red’ apple as opposed to the ‘green’ one).

We cannot ‘know’ brahman in the way that we know a fact, as something objectively defined. We ‘know’ it by virtue of ‘being’ it. But, to begin with, we are ignorant of our true nature so that words are needed to ‘show us the way’. But straight descriptions are not available. Even obvious concepts such as ‘sweetness’ cannot be described – they are known by direct experience. But if I give you some sugar and ask you to taste it, there is no longer any need to describe it; I can simply say that the quality of that taste *is* sweetness. brahman is not an experience in this sense but we can still use words, whose meanings we understand, to point to that which is not itself an experience. Thus, for example, we know the difference between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ from everyday experience – the chair on which I am sitting is real and the face that I see in the pattern on the carpet is unreal. ‘sat’ also means ‘real, existing, true’. brahman, being the only reality, clearly must be real and existent, even though we do not know it in any objective sense.

The ‘right’ words can trigger direct understanding because we are already brahman. The classic example that I often tell people about is called bhAga tyAga lakShaNa and it is so expressive that it is worth reading again, even if you are already familiar with it.
The word Ananda, incidentally, should be understood as anantam. Translating it as ‘bliss’ gives it the sense of a relative degree of happiness, which it isn’t.

Obviously lots more could be said here. Answering this one question fully could constitute an entire course on advaita! But I think you should get the general idea.

Q: Once you have done the so called work or practices and have realized the self, than it seems that both neo and traditional teachings are talking about the same thing and there is enjoyment in reading books from both schools. That is to say: if a neo teacher is talking about this relative existence after realization, I may relate to it or not, but I can still enjoy it because I don't expect to get anything from it other than the enjoyment one might get from reading poetry for example. There was a time when I would read books like 'I am that' looking for answers, solutions, clarification. Now I just like the way he points to the truth.

What are your thoughts on chopping wood and reading neo advaita?

A: Yes, of course you are right in essence, although 'practice' will never bring enlightenment – this can only be achieved through knowledge, since only that can eliminate ignorance. What we enjoy is determined by our vAsanA-s (nature if you like) so that some like reading poetry, some don't (though we can get the taste for it, i.e. acquire new vAsanA-s). I agree that both neo- and traditional teachings are talking about the same thing when it comes to absolute reality. I think you will find, though, that most neo-advaitins deny the existence of any 'relative existence'. They also deny the existence of 'realization' so that there can be no 'after realization'.

But I am nit-picking here, as you will probably rightly accuse me of! The enjoyment or not of reading or listening to a neo-advaitin teacher will again depend upon one's nature. It is difficult to just sit back and enjoy if you are forever picking holes in what they say and complaining that it will not benefit the seeker in his seeking!

Q: I have been spending much time reading on your web site but I am confused as to why your have strongly recommended books that you considered Neo advaita. I'm not sure I have a clue what this word means and who is and who isn't a neo-advaitin.If "It is difficult to just sit back and enjoy if you are forever picking holes in what they say and complaining that it will not benefit the seeker in his seeking!" than why recommend them?? It seems that most teachers I know are either unaware of this term or don't consider themselves to be in this category.

A: This question has effectively been asked already (see question 122) Certainly this entire subject is dealt with in depth in the book (Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle) and one of the extracts or the EBook may touch on it. What characterizes neo-advaitin teachers is their denial of seeker, path, enlightenment, value of practice, levels of reality etc. but some are more vehement about all this than others. And I have always maintained that a mature seeker could have their final obstacles of self-ignorance removed by such a teacher.

From the outset, my aim with the website is to post essays and links on clearly advaita-related topics, irrespective of my own views on them. I will certainly air my views separately, both in my books and on the site, but avoiding (I hope!) any ad hominem criticism.

Someone like Leo Hartong utilizes metaphors from tradition as well as making up his own brilliantly original ones so his book, as well as being enjoyable to read, can actually make anyone sit up and think. David Carse’s book, if you can persevere through the first couple of chapters comes across as sincere and laying down well-considered, hard facts about the way things are. I have no qualms at all about recommending books such as these. In contrast, some of the books I have read seem to say nothing at all and merely reiterate sentiments such as ‘this is it’ in various ways, without logic or reason.

Regarding your earlier question, I also classify (in the book) some teachers as ‘satsang’. This is because of their method of teaching, Neo-advaitin teachers also use this method but those I call ‘satsang’ teachers are not ‘neos’. This is because they do not argue all of the above aspects (‘denial of seeker’ etc.) According to these definitions, teachers such as Sailor Bob are certainly not neo-advaitins. However, it is true to say that some of the ‘neo-sentiments’ are beginning to creep into some of the more recent books by ‘satsang’ teachers and this seems particularly the case with respect to those who might put themselves into the ‘Nisargadatta’ sampradAya.

Q: Simple question: is there a (useful) distinction to made between consciousness and awareness (capitalized or not)? They seem interchangeable to me, but some authors seem to write that one is a primordial ground and the other always has content as in consciousness of...or awareness of.

A: Yes, in everyday usage they are usually used interchangeably. But teachers frequently differentiate as you have indicated – some one way, some the other – which is why it is so important to define the terms that you are using very carefully. Traditionally the word sAkShi (witness) is often used in this sense but it is also pointed out that this is not the ‘final’ realization. As long as there is a ‘subject’ aware of or watching an ‘object’, there is duality. Whatever you want to call the ‘ultimate’ reality, it has to be non-dual. Best to stick to ‘brahman’ or ‘Atman’! In the end, no word can be adequate since language itself is dualistic. This is why, in the Mandukya Upanishad, it is the silence following OM that represents turIya.

Q: Using metaphors: Is this strong sense of 'being' only a reflection of the absolute? The reflection of the sun in the dew drop but not the sun. The moon in the bucket of water is not the moon. Using the pot and clay as a metaphor, is 'being' pot that is obviously only clay manifesting as pot?  Is pot Atman and clay Brahman, therefore obviously All is Brahman?

What seems to be coming is that this strong sense of 'being', is a temporary manifestation. 'I' goes, all goes. (deep sleep example) Of course I knew this 25 years ago but only as conventional knowledge.

I love the metaphor of the Zen monk carrying a bucket of water and there is a reflection of the moon dancing in the ripples. The bottom falls out of the bucket of water and the reflection disappears. The Moon is not affected.

A: The ‘I am’ certainty is not a reflection; it is the reality. It is the belief (in the mind that ‘I am X’) which is the reflection. Similarly, the pot thinking that it is a pot is the mistake; realizing that it is the clay is the reality. But I don’t like that metaphor used in this context. The best one is the wave-water metaphor. Thinking that I am a wave and therefore a part of the ocean is being stuck at the jIva – Ishvara level. The full realization is that I am water, just as the ocean is water. If you want to differentiate for clarity: The ocean equates to Ishvara; wave equates to the jIva. But the reality is that Ishvara is brahman + mAyA; jIva is Atman + avidyA and Atman = brahman, of course.

Another metaphor, used in the Mandukya Upanishad is pot and space. There appears to be a ‘pot space’ – a space associated with the pot. But if the pot is moved or broken, the space is entirely unaffected and realized to have been only seemingly limited by the boundary of the pot.

‘I’ never go – not even in deep sleep. What happens there is that the mind goes so that all that it ‘projects’ goes with it, leaving the subject without an object (the bottom falls out of the bucket).

I must say that I used to wonder why the scriptures use two words – Atman and brahman. I always thought it would be far less confusing if they only ever used one. I think it is because most people come to an understanding of advaita through the bhakti approach, i.e. most start off believing in a separate God. Since I never had this ‘problem’, I never really found the need to differentiate.

Q: I have a copy of Mandukya Upanishad (Swami Gambhirananda's with Shankaracharya's commentary) Swamiji Dayananda say's this one Upanishad is enough. I loved it and struggle with it. Is there a easier translation? Swamiji has something coming out soon in book form.

A: Coincidentally, I have just started writing a book on the Mandukya and kArikA-s, due out in 2011. Great news indeed if Swami D has something out soon! My first version was the Nikhilananda one and I always had great difficulty with this (I still haven’t really read through it yet). I am currently reading what I think was the first English translation of everything (Upanishad, kArikA and Shankara’s bhAShya). It is by Manilal N. Dvivedi and published by Kessinger. So far, I am very impressed. This version is just really the straight translation though. If you want lots of additional commentary, then Swami Chinmayananda’s version is good. But far and away the absolute best is to buy the 80 hrs worth of talks by Swami Paramarthananda. I cannot recommend these too highly. I am currently listening through for the second time and will do so for a third time in the course of writing the book.

Q:What are your top 10 (5) books? Which would you most want to keep (not including 'Back to the Truth'?

A: That's an interesting (and difficult) question. It’s not really a fair question because I use most of my books on advaita as reference and have certainly not read all from cover to cover. However, I’ll have a go. It also really depends upon why you are asking. I could produce three lists (at least): one that I would recommend for other seekers in general; one tailored for a specific seeker; one for the topic in which I am currently most interested. It would also make a difference whether I was recommending the general one for beginners, intermediate or advanced seekers. Without knowing what your criteria are, I have just looked through my shelves and picked out those that struck a chord, then checked my ‘Best of Best’ list and my bedside table! If you want me to be more specific, you’ll have to pin down those criteria!

Here are the ones that 'jumped out', not in any particular order:

If your question is related to which books I would take to the mythical 'desert island', i.e. which would I want to study over a prolonged period, rather than read for immediate understanding/enjoyment, then the list would be somewhat different. The books most worthy of study would be:

Q: The following is quoted from your web site:

"I would have to say that, when Self-knowledge has completely removed the Self-ignorance in the mind of the seeker, there IS permanent enlightenment. It is then known directly that there is only the Self. That knowledge never fades. It is not an experience and not a state. The seeking ceases because it is now known, in the mind, that ‘I am That’."

My own experience is that I have realized that 'I am that' and the mental chatter, which I used to think was my whole world, was seen to be something that happens regardless of a 'me'. But there are times when I am so engrossed in the mental chatter that it seems that that is all there is, so it seems that the realizing of the absolute self is intermittent. I know that the absolute self is always there never changing but the little self isn't always aware of this fact.

So it seems that full self-realization is "when Self-knowledge has completely removed the Self-ignorance" whereas in my own case it has only partially removed self-ignorance. The teachers I have spoken with on this matter have said that I may notice a gradual extension of periods of, let's say, the mind being aware that it isn't it. So my question is about permanent enlightenment: is remembering this truth all that one can do to convert the 'partial' into the 'complete' enlightenment?

A: If you still have doubts of any sort, then there has not yet been akhaNDAkAra vRRitti (see the terms section of the website). If there is no longer any doubt in your mind whatsoever about the truth of non-duality, then you are really talking about the distinction between j~nAna and j~nAna phalam. There are a few questions on this topic already. If one is fully mentally prepared prior to enlightenment (see terms section on sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti), then as soon as there is enlightenment, one automatically also gets the benefits such as peaceful mind, absence of fear etc. In the case of those who were not fully prepared, however, there will be knowledge of the truth but no immediate fruits. In this case, one should continue with the nididhyAsana practice. This means such things as reading scriptures, listening to good teachers etc. and generally meditating on the knowledge which has been gained. This is my own situation, too, and the principal way in which I am doing my nididhyAsana is writing books (and answering questions)!

Q: Many teachers seem to imply that the ego will disappear simply by ignoring or denying it. But if the innate tendencies or samskaras have not been completey eradicated, a teacher cannot call himself 'enlightened'. A tree whose branches have been cut grows again. So long as the roots of the tree remain unimpaired, the tree will contnue to grow. Unless the samskaras are totally destroyed by j~nAna, they will automatically attract rebirth at the appropriate time.

A: Of course, what you say is what is taught by the traditional teaching at a particular point – and very useful it has proven to be for many seekers for centuries. To the extent that it ‘fits’ with one’s upbringing, culture, education etc, it will continue to be invaluable for providing provisional answers for such seekers until such time as they are ‘ready’ for more appropriate pointers to the absolute truth.

In the West, many seekers do not have any affinity for ideas such as reincarnation or divine beings wielding powers of creation and destruction. Since the ultimate truth is that none of these are actually satyam (absolutely real), it may be counter-productive to try to impose such ideas upon them. Teachers in the West generally do not make use of them and I do not believe that you can say this is unacceptable.

Your main point seems to relate to the difference between enlightenment and j~nAna phalam (jIvanmukti). I have written several times on this topic but here is the answer I gave to a questioner some time ago:

"...the distinction between j~nAna - the knowledge gained as a result of one's sAdhanA through to enlightenment - and j~nAna phalam - the fruits of that knowledge in the form of peace of mind, equanimity in the face of adversity etc. Thus it is the case that one can have all the knowledge and be enlightened yet still be subject to the sort of disturbances of mind that you describe. According to commentaries on Gaudapada's mANDUkya kArikA (III.40 - 2), it all depends upon the extent of preparation (sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti) that was done in the past. The seeker who has done none will gain neither enlightenment nor the fruit. The middling student will gain enlightenment but not the fruit. The one who was fully prepared will gain both.

“The one who is now enlightened but does not have the peace of mind etc. (the madhyamA adhikArI) must perform nididhyAsana to recover the situation. This will convert the emotional blockage into j~nAna phalam. This practice should take the form of repeatedly listening to, reading or writing scriptures or discussion or teaching. (Alternatively, Vedantic meditation, as per Patanjali yoga, may be practiced.)"

The key point in respect of what you are saying here is that not having j~nAna phalam need not impact on a teacher’s ability. Indeed, Shankara has pointed out that a skilled and knowledgeable teacher who is not even enlightened is preferable to an enlightened one who is lacking teaching skills. Someone who is both a skilled teacher and enlightened would still be an excellent teacher even if themselves still suffering occasional mental problems as a result of insufficient preparation.

Incidentally, we are all in that ‘stateless state’ of being the Self, since there is only the Self. The problem is that most do not know it. This is self-ignorance. The purpose of all teaching is to introduce Self-knowledge to eliminate that ignorance. When this happens, the ‘person’ now recognizes this truth (i.e. is ‘enlightened’) but nothing has actually changed.

If you want to ask a question, and do not object to its being included in this section, please email me.

Return to list of questions.



Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012