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 still have problems with the notion of choice and 'doing'. If choice is an illusion and action takes place regardless, why do I need to worry about it? For example, I want to drink less (alcohol) since I know that it affects my mental energy the next day. I would prefer to have a clear mind so that it will work more efficiently. It seems that I can make plans to do all this and it seems to work but who then is doing this? Do I only 'play' at being the chooser, knowing that in reality I am not doing anything and this will all happen (or not) regardless? Do you, for example, make an effort to write your books? I often feel that, unless I make an effort, I would just eat, play and enjoy the moment.

A: One of the metaphors I often use is the sun rising and setting. Even though we know that it doesn’t really, it still seems to do. Similarly, even though we know that there is no person choosing and making effort, it still seems like that. You really have no choice but to continue seeming to choose! It will happen anyway. Something will always happen to force the issue; why bother about it? I often feel lethargic but eventually the pressure of things that ‘need’ to be done ‘forces’ me out of the chair and things start happening again. Just let it be and enjoy!

Of course the mind plays its part in all of this. Knowing that life will improve without the alcohol is a significant factor in the equation of all the forces playing their part. As this is born out in practice, the force becomes stronger and the result is in accord with all of this. No real choice in the matter but no harm in pretending that there is!

Q: I would be grateful if you could give me your opinion of Gangaji.

As I said in my previous emails, I am very new to the study of Advaita. I have been on the spiritual path for about 40 years on and off, and after visiting a healer in 1972 had glimpses of something inside that was very pleasant and lasted for several months. I was changed immediately but I didn't know how it came about... I just discovered God I suppose and didn't study much scripture before or after. This happened several times again years later (long story!) and it faded away each time.

The fact is I have become very fond of Gangaji over the past few months. She seems compassionate and very dedicated and very knowledgeable of human behavior. I retired sick nearly ten years ago; I don't know how much time this body has left and don't wish to waste it on listening to anything that is not worthwhile.

As you have much more experience than myself, are you able to say whether I am on the right track with Gangaji? She claims to be in lineage from Ramana Maharshi through Papaji. I have studied him as well and find him very good too, although I find it hard to follow him sometimes, most likely due to his English.

I have practiced basic self enquiry and experienced a calm mind  for extended periods, but it fades away again as soon as I have a problem. Today. for example, I had printer problems for hours and felt really fed up afterwards - not like me at all to be moody over a small thing like that !

A: I’m afraid that I do not have much knowledge of Gangaji, never having met her or read any of her books. I know that many believe her to be an ‘authentic’ teacher but her lineage is not particularly auspicious since, according to David Godman, Papaji did not really recognize any of those that visited him as worthy and merely sent them off to act as ‘evangelists’ to get people to come to Lucknow.

The value of a spiritual experience is in assisting the resolve or pointing you in the right direction. Our problem is not lack of experience (we experience non-duality every night in deep sleep) but lack of knowledge. The only thing that removes self-ignorance is self-knowledge. Practice is a precursor rather than an end in itself in that it is easier to listen and understand with a still mind than one that is in turmoil.

I do appreciate your concern regarding not wasting time. If it is any consolation, time is as much an illusion as the body – both are real from the empirical standpoint but have no absolute reality. As regards recommending a course of action, I presume that your involvement with Gangaji is mainly through listening to CDs and reading books rather than one to one personal interaction. (Otherwise, I don’t imagine that you would be asking my advice.) If that is the case, then I would definitely recommend that you listen to Swami Paramarthananda and read Swami Dayananda. (Specifically this way round, not the other, since Swami P is easy to listen to and Swami D difficult.)

Many short essays and transcribed material from Swami Dayananda may be downloaded from http://www.avgsatsang.org/hhpsds.html and his books may be purchased from http://books.arshavidya.org/. Swami Paramarthanda’s talks may be purchased in mp3 format CDs from http://www.sastraprakasika.org and some talks may always be listened to on-line at http://www.vedantavidyarthisangha.org/. I would suggest that you start with the latter site. If you click on ‘Talks’ on the menu bar, there is a section of 32 talks called ‘Introduction to Vedanta’. Although I haven’t actually heard these myself, based on what I have heard of Swami P, I would heartily recommend them. Since you are new to advaita, I would recommend that you then look for books/talks on Atma Bodha, Tattwa Bodha, Vivekachudamani, Kena Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad from these sources as a starter. I can almost guarantee that you will find these rewarding, whereas I obviously cannot speak for the Gangaji material. With Swami P, you will also be getting a consistent and complete picture of advaita – and therefore knowledge about who-you-really-are.

I shouldn’t worry about the fading away of the calm mind. There is self-knowledge (enlightenment) and there is peace-of-mind, fearlessness etc. (j~nAna phalam) and the two do not go together unless you were fully qualified (sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti) prior to gaining the self-knowledge or you have fully ‘assimilated’ the knowledge post enlightenment (nididhyAsana). I frequently lose patience with the computer!

Q: I seem to be full of anger and hate(at times). I am frustrated and do not want to be. Sometimes I am afraid that this may even lead to physical confrontations. It seems to disappear for several months, and then next thing I know, I am swept away, it seems, and arguing with people over nonsense, screaming and honking my horn in traffic. I think, how did I get here again? Most times I am very well liked and helpful. Any help would be extremely appreciated?

A: I am sure what you say will be recognized by many, though some may not be honest enough to admit it. It really comes back to the, now quite numerous, questions that touch on the subject of j~nAna and j~nAna phalam ­– enlightenment and the ‘fruits of enlightenment’ such as peace of mind, fearlessness and, in your case, tranquility, not being angered or frustrated by events in the seeming world.

According to  traditional advaita, your nature (in the sense of personality) is determined by past karma. This functions as cause and effect so situations will occur and you will tend to act according to that. There are really only two practices that you can follow to ameliorate these effects. The first is karma yoga and the second is meditation and they do go together. You will experience a still and clear mind more frequently and for longer periods if you practice meditation regularly. And, with a still mind, it is much more likely that you will be alert in the present moment so that you can you can respond to events appropriately, as they arise, rather than reacting to them in an habitual manner.

I can really only answer questions in the area of j~nAna yoga – the self-knowledge that is needed to remove self-ignorance and bring ‘enlightenment’. Practices such as the above are only instrumental, in that a disturbed, uncontrolled mind is unlikely to be able to assimilate the knowledge. Accordingly, I cannot really help much further. There is a Chinmayananda center in Maryland, which is excellent for j~nAna but I do not think they address the other aspects. I would not normally recommend SES / The School of Practical Philosophy but they are probably the best organization for karma yoga and meditation. Unfortunately I think the nearest branch to you is New Jersey. I would suggest that the best option is to sign up for Transcendental Meditation – there are four centers in Maryland. The thing about meditation is that you really need a mentor for the first six months at least who can comment on your experiences and provide reassurance/explanation etc. so, although the essential practice can be explained very easily, it is not recommended that you simply pick up a book and follow written instructions. Plus, the financial outlay for TM is so significant that it ensures that you are totally committed before you take it on. And it does require commitment – we are talking about two half-hour sessions per day religiously for years. This actually turns out not to be a problem once you get into it but it certainly seems so at the outset!

Q: It is somewhat discouraging to entertain the possibility that the way is blocked until the proper meanings of many Sanskrit words are assimilated.

Somehow Nisargadatta was able to get away with teachings like "Stay open and quiet, that is all. What you seek is so near you that there is no place for a way," and "Stop making use of your mind and see what happens. Do this one thing thoroughly. That is all." This type of idea provides more hope of success for a linguaphobe.

I have no idea whether my current mental preparedness is enough to allow traditional Indian words to do their job, or whether more familiar English words might be enough. From where I stand, I can see I'm not qualified to judge what might work, only that one road looks easier than the other. Maybe both eventually reach the same vista, and maybe not, but at a fork in the road, the path with fewer boulders tends to beckon.

A: I can understand your concerns about Sanskrit terms. I rebelled against it for years before finally giving in (to learning basic Sanskrit) - and then found that I enjoyed it.

The essence of what teachers such as Nisargadatta and Ramana said, and all of those modern teachers who claim to be following in their footsteps, is of course true. You are seeking your Self and you already are that. Stupid really! But the problem is all of the mistaken ideas in mind that point us in the wrong direction and simply stating that you do not need to do anything to be who you already are does not help. The mistaken notions have to be analyzed and seen to be false. Only when all of the self-ignorance has been eliminated can the truth be clearly seen.

There are well established and proven techniques for guiding seekers through this process but it requires knowledge and skill. And, unfortunately, a little Sanskrit seems unavoidable because it is not always easy to express an idea in English when the concept is alien and no suitable English word exists. Obviously we can provide a nearest-equivalent word but then there is the real danger of misunderstanding. Look, for example at how advaita tells us that the world is 'mithyA'. This is often translated as saying that the world is illusory or, worse still, that it is unreal. Neither of these words convey the correct understanding that the world in itself is neither real nor unreal but that its essential nature is brahman and that we mistakenly take its forms as separate objects and give them names to emphasize this. This is something that has to be understood before the mind can realize the truth about ourselves and the universe.

I am not saying categorically that you cannot be enlightened by following the simple guidelines of Nisargadatta or Ramana. But bear this in mind: you already are the self and already experience only the self all the time. The mind is resolved every night in deep sleep but you still awaken every day to the belief that you live in a world of separation. It is not that the mind has to be destroyed in any way (this is, in any case, not possible) but there is clearly a need for 'education'!

Q: In the Bible, Jesus said that one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit is guilty of eternal sin. As we all know, even Hindu sages agree that Jesus was a fully enlightened person. Therefore, can it also be said that one who blasphemes Brahman is guilty of the eternal sin that Jesus was talking about and therefore never able to attain salvation?

A: I think you are missing the point of advaita here. The absolute truth is that there are no ‘people’, whether Hindus or Christians, Krishna or Christ. There is no universe, nor any god that created it. The concepts that you speak of are only relevant at the level of the apparent world.

At the level of the world, Brahman is not a god anyway; brahman is the word used to refer to the non-dual reality. So you ARE brahman. It would not make any sense to speak of blaspheming against Brahman.

At the level of the world, the principle responsible for ‘rewards’ or ‘punishment’, through the process of karma, is called Ishvara. But this is rather viewed as the wielder of the laws of the universe etc. and is not regarded by Hindus as a ‘personal’ God. At the level of personal gods (of which there are many in Hinduism), I suppose it might be meaningful to talk about blasphemy. But this is now way outside the philosophy of Advaita and I don’t know anything about it.

Q: After all the jIva-s realize their true self and return to the Source/Brahman, will it be a real possibility that Brahman will create another lIlA or "divine game" and so Brahman will start manifesting as form again and we will once again be under mAyA and start seeing everything as separate again?

A: This question is again confusing the two levels. From the standpoint of the apparent world, Hinduism has its creation theories etc. just as Christianity does. The  story is that Brahma (NOT brahman but the particular god who is currently playing the role of creator) creates the world according to the fruits that had accumulated on termination of the previous creation, including all of the jIva-s (some of who will be reincarnating, some new ones which have progressed from lower life forms and some gods now being reborn as jIva-s to try to reach enlightenment). This new creation passes through four stages (yuga-s) of decreasing purity, increasing anarchy until that creation reaches an end, is folded up and there is nothing for a while (pralaya) until the whole sequence begins again. This has always been going on and always will.

As I have said before, from the standpoint of absolute reality, there is no creation; there are no jIva-s or gods; there is only brahman who does nothing, wants for nothing because it is already perfect and complete.

Q: You say that the yuga-s will keep going on and on forever but what if all the jIva-s achieve enlightenment in the future, even if this takes a long time? Then the new creation and yuga-s will stop, surely?

Also have you realized your self? Will I be able to realize myself for sure in this lifetime by focusing on the feeling "I am"? I have read that David Godman who dedicated his whole life to Ramana's teachings and practiced self enquiry but has still not realized his self. Ramana is said to have realized the self at a very young age. Does this all depend upon how good one's karma is?

A: Since there is really no creation in the first place from the standpoint of absolute reality, it is not meaningful to ask questions such as this. It is like the waker asking if the accident victim in his dream recovered or not.

Regarding enlightenment, as I have told everyone else who asks this question, it depends what you mean by the term. It is like asking me whether I believe in god. You define exactly what you mean and I will give you an answer according to that definition.

As far as your spiritual search is concerned at the level of empirical reality, simply repeating 'I am' or meditating upon this will not bring enlightenment. If you think of enlightenment as 'self-knowledge', you will appreciate that you need to learn things about the nature of your self and the world in order to remove the self-ignorance that presently exists. Whether or not you attain enlightenment in this life might be thought of as karma-dependent to the extent that your choice to pursue self-knowledge and your ability to do so are the 'effect' of past influences.

Q: Is it the case that Self-realization comes about as a result of the dissolution of all beliefs? Without any
belief, where is your individual identity? Through understanding, you discard all beliefs one by one until the very last one, whatever that might be. Following this dissolution, waht you are left with is the absolute. (The dictionary definition (Merriam Webster) gives: 'BELIEF: a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.

A: No – it is *self-ignorance* that must be dispelled. Of course, in doing so, (false) beliefs will naturally go away but this is not the emphasis. In a sense, a belief is simply a strongly held opinion so is always open to change when better/more persuasive ideas come along. As your dictionary definition points out, it is akin to faith. Knowledge is beyond influence by opinion. He who knows himself knows everything.

Q: How can you know your self? That which you know cannot be your self.

A: Yes, you are sort of right. You cannot know the self in any objective sense, since I am that which illumines knower, known and means of knowing. But I am self-luminous, self-evident. I do not need a means of knowledge in order to be known, just as the sun does not need another source of light in order to be seen. (You just need to remove any obstacles, such as clouds etc, which are themselves only seen because of the sun.)

Q: When I wake up in the morning, is there a moment of 'choice' when I can decide either to continue to behave in the same way that I have always done (leading to misery) or instead to break that habitual cycle and act in such a way as to lead to happiness?

A: I would have to say that there is no choice – all functions automatically in a cause-effect manner at the level of appearance. But intrinsic to that cause-effect nexus are the outcomes of prior experience. Thus, for example. it may have been seen that certain habits have repeatedly led to misery and you may have read that certain practices such as being in the present, acting dispassionately etc. can break such habits. Thus, there may come a point where the balance tips and you act in a non-habitual way. This may lead to a satisfactory outcome, thus reinforcing the tendency to act in this new way and building a new habit. Thus, changes can come about despite the fact that there is never any conscious choice in the matter.

Q: I've just been enjoying your book 'Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle'. You say that enlightenment is an 'event in the mind' but isn't the seeing-through of the illusion heart-based rather than intellectual? And surely practice is what brings this about? Ramana Maharshi advocates asking 'Who am I?' to achieve this.

A: Yes, you are right that practice is necessary. I don't think I said anywhere that it isn't. What I said is that practice *in itself* cannot lead to enlightenment. Since enlightenment is an event in the mind, the mind has to be in a suitable state for the event to occur. It won't, for example, occur in the mind of someone whose mind is full of worry, desire, fear or whatever. The purpose of practice is to learn how to control the mind, give attention, exercise discrimination etc. Without some preparation (practice), there is no chance of gaining self-knowledge. The other aspect is that, although with some practice, it is possible to gain self-knowledge, if the practice has been insufficient, there will be no 'fruit of knowledge' (jIvanmukti). I.e. although the person may become enlightened, there will be none of the 'good stuff' associated with this - peace of mind, fearlessness etc.

The knowledge that 'I am brahman' is not something that can be gained from any experience or any of the usual sources of knowledge (perception, inference etc.). The pointers to this fact come from the scriptures. When 'unfolded' by a competent teacher, it is possible for there to be direct apprehension of this truth (since we already are That).

The second point is regarding your 'heart' concerns. This is a red-herring. The reason that many teachers have become hung-up on the 'heart' being the centre for the 'self' (or however you want to put this) is that, at the time that the Upanishads etc were being written, it was believed that the mind was located in the heart. The fact is that enlightenment takes place in the mind (which is where the 'light' of Consciousness is 'refelcted'). Self-knowledge then replaces self-ignorance and that is all there is to it. (!)

If you accept the bottom line of advaita, namely that the reality is that there is only brahman, then it follows that we are already That (as the neo-teachers keep telling us). Nothing we can do will liberate us because we are already free. So what is the problem then? We don't know this fact. We know that we exist and we know that we are conscious but we don't know that we are unlimited. Ramana advocates Atma vichAra - investigation into the Self. An element of this is asking 'Who am I?' but simply repeating this like a mantra is not going to achieve anything. What is lacking is Self-knowledge and some external teaching is required to provide this. Of all the means of knowledge available to us, the only one that can provide this knowledge is shabda pramANa - scriptural knowledge, ideally imparted by a teacher. Yes, it is the ideas in the mind that bind us but the mind is also where the self-knowledge takes place that brings enlightenment.

Q: But Ramana says that Enlightenment (Self-Realization) is the dissolution or destruction of the 'I'-thought in the Heart. Don't you agree?

A: It is not precisely like that. The 'I' thought is the reflection of Consciousness in the mind. This continues after enlightenment and, indeed, until the death of the body-mind. What enlightenment brings is the knowledge of this. Before, one thinks 'I am this body-mind'; after one knows 'I am brahman; this body-mind is simply name and form of that same brahman'.

Q: Have you ever actually attempted a sustained Ramana-like Self-Enquiry practice?

A: Not as such, no. But then, as noted above, this practice is an aspect of Atma vichAra. I think that its main attraction for many seekers is the idea that doing this on its own circumvents the need for following a traditional path and I believe this notion is mistaken.

Q: Isn't the argument which says that direct experience is not necessary, or cannot bring about Self-Knowledge, really a 'clever' trick or ploy engaged in to avoid exposing the lie which our identity is usually based on - i.e. 'personal self'?

A: No. Don't you see that, if you accept that the Self is non-dual, it is a contradiction in terms to talk about 'experiencing the Self'? Who would experience what?

Self-enquiry means investigation into Self, not independent investigation. (An obvious point perhaps but one which may often be assumed to be otherwise.) As Swami Chinmayananda pointed out, asking ourselves ‘Who am I?’ is only going to return the answer ‘the same old fool’.

The seeker begins with the mistaken belief that he is a jIva (independent soul with a body-mind-intellect). And he really believes this so that investigation is going to be from this standpoint. Compare the rope-snake metaphor. We mistakenly believe that the thing ahead of us is a snake. If we begin our investigation from this standpoint, we are going to be looking into types of snakes, occurrence, characteristics, precautions, poison remedies etc. and none of these are going to lead us to rope-realisation.

According to traditional advaita, the only pramANa (means of knowledge) for Self-knowledge is shabda pramANa, which means scriptures and guru. They are needed to point us in the right direction – away from the snake and towards the rope.

Q: Please would you cast some light on a puzzle I have.......... I see the mantra phrase that begins 'Om namo....' is sometimes rendered as 'Om namah....'. Is Om namah only correct when applied to Shiva, if so, why is this? Thank you in advance.

A: It is because of the rules of saMdhi, which govern how letters are sounded when they occur next to each other. The word for 'bow, salutation' etc. is actually namas, if you look it up in a dictionary. But the first rule of visarga saMdhi says that if a word ending in 's' is followed by nothing or any letter (is there any other choice??), then the 's' changes to a visarga (H).

A visarga is a so-called 'hard' letter, as is the letter 'sh' at the beginning of shiva. The rules say that, when a hard letter at the end of a word is followed by another hard letter at the beginning of the next, it doesn't have to change - hence OM namaH shivAya (shivAya is the dative case of shiva, meaning 'to Shiva'. In the case of something like bhagavat, however, the 'bh' is soft. When a hard-letter at the end of a word is followed by a soft one at the beginning, in order for it to 'sound right', the 'H' has to be changed into an 'o' (all vowels except H are soft). Hence OM namo bhagavate.

The consonants on the first two rows of the alphabet: k, ch, T, th, p; kh, Ch, Th, th, ph are said to soft or unvoiced (aghoSha), while the remainder are hard or voiced (ghoSha).

Are you sure you wanted to know the answer to this question?!

Many of the rules of saMdhi are much more intuitive and you can even guess some of them, just by listening to see what sounds best. You ought to know that I am pretty ignorant when it comes to the finer points of Sanskrit, incidentally. It is only because I know where to look that I sometimes appear to be knowledgeable. If you want to learn about saMdhi, the place to go is http://www.sanskrit-sanscrito.com.ar/ - Gabriel's tutorials are very readable and excellent.

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