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: Just finished your Back to The Truth, which I much enjoyed and in which I found some very useful references, thank you!

The book is certainly an encyclopedic guide for the seeker. My one quibble is that some readers might take "Advaita" to be some kind of philosophy or system of belief. I respectfully submit that your readers should be reminded that a Sage (to use Robert Adams' term) or a j~nAnI (to use the Sanskrit term) enjoys a completely different state of consciousness from the rest of us. In much the same way as a human is in a different state of consciousness from a horse or a dog. If you read the experiences of Ramana Maharishi, Robert Adams or Eckhart Tolle as they underwent the transformation of awakening from the usual human state of consciousness to the j~nAnI state, all describe a very intense and even violent experience. Afterwards, all three went through a period of what would appear to be a kind of shell-shock. Eckhart Tolle spent several years just sitting on a park bench. Ramana lost interest in eating and might have starved had not some kindly woman fed him. Robert Adams' family thought he had become psychotic. And so on.

Or consider the experience of the late Suzanne Segal. She was waiting at a bus stop when her "self" disappeared. Although Suzanne was a TM meditator and had some knowledge of Advaita teachings, her experience was so bizarre and unsettling that she thought she was experiencing a psychotic episode. She could not understand how things that needed to be done were done without her being there to do them. For a dozen years, she tried everything to get her old sense of "self" back. She ended up doing a PhD in psychology in an attempt to understand her experience intellectually. Of course, her state of consciousness was beyond intellectual understanding. Finally, one day when she was driving through a forest, she came to realize that she was driving from where she already was through what she already is to what she already is. She was traveling though her Self, in effect. As she said, the "nothing" that she had become was found to be the same as the "everything" that is. Only then, after 12 years (!), did she recognize the experience of oneness. I highly recommend her book, "Collision with the Infinite". You will enjoy her account.

Numerous references enforce the fact that the state of the j~nAnI is COMPLETELY different.

The man of restraint is awake
In that which is night for all beings;
The time in which all beings are awake
Is night for the Sage who sees. Gita II, 69

In other words, it's like night and day! And a state of consciousness is so self-evident so obvious, there is no more need for philosophical

As much value as there is in a well
When water is flooding on every side,
So much is the value in all the Vedas
for a brahman who knows. Gita, II, 46 (trans. Winthrop Sargeant)

I can't remember which book it's in, but I recall reading that at some point a woman visiting Nisargadatta, evidently experiencing some frustration at trying to grasp the ineffable, finally asks Nisargadatta right out, "Well what is the difference between me and you?" to which Nisargadatta replies, "Madam, there is no difference between me and you except for the fact that you see yourself as being in the world and I see the world as being in Me".

A: Glad that you found BTT useful - always pleased to hear this, since that was why it was written!

It sounds like you have a mistaken view of consciousness and enlightenment. In reality there is only brahman, which is often referred to as 'consciousness'. The 'states' of consciousness are waking, dream and deep-sleep but the truth of all of these is the 'fourth' - turIya, which is the same brahman or consciousness. This 'consciousness' is the same for sages, 'ordinary' men and animals, plants or rocks. Its manifestation obviously differs according to the existence and quality of the body-mind. A sage or j~nAnI is an 'ordinary' man who has become enlightened. Enlightenment is the event in the mind when ones identity with brahman is irrevocably realized. Enlightenment is not an experience; it is self-knowledge. This irrevocable event may or may not be accompanied by an 'intense experience' but the experience is ultimately irrelevant; only the self-knowledge is important.

The night-day verse from the Gita is referenced in BTT page 307. The Nisargadatta quote is quite correct and again refers to self-knowledge. Once one knows the truth, this also includes the knowledge that the world is not other than myself. All appearances are only seeming manifestations of myself. In reality, nothing has ever been born or created at all.

Q: Do you make a distinction between Awareness and Consciousness?

In reading several sources (Balsekar, Maharshi, and more) there remains a confusion about thought and its place in Awareness/Consciousness. All seem to agree that a still mind is a necessary condition of Consciousness. (Experientially, I think I know what a "still mind" is, but have no descriptors.) However, in functioning in everyday life, mental activities such as choosing, judging, comparing are necessary. (e.g. do I want to buy this item at this cost or that item)

What is the place of thought in Consciousness?

A: It is not possible to say that ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’ are either different or equivalent because it depends upon who is using them. If, for example, you are reading Nisargadatta, then they are certainly not the same and he uses these words in the opposite way to most other teachers.

Regarding thoughts and mind, a still mind is required for discrimination (viveka) and the ability to control the mind is one of the requirements of sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti, which is needed to some degree if one is to gain self-knowledge (enlightenment). I think this is what you were asking.

Q: A little more on the second question, if you will: what is the place of thought in Consciousness?

To clarify my own question.... it seems like functional thought (i.e. getting by in daily activity) necessarily precludes a "still mind". The mind in thought of any kind is not a still mind (or is this incorrect?), Balsekar makes the distinction between a working mind and a thinking mind, but I don't see how they can be present at the same time. Any other understanding of this gets foggy and imaginary by giving the two a hierarchical relationship.

A: I haven’t heard of Balsekar’s ‘categorization’. Bearing in mind that all of this relates to empirical reality only, I would differentiate on the basis of buddhi versus manas. These two ‘organs’ of mind are differentiated in Indian philosophies to recognize their different functions. manas is the aspect that processes I/O from the senses but it is also the part that frequently gets caught up in desires, fears and circling thoughts in general – i.e. unproductive and unhelpful activity. buddhi (sometimes referred to as the ‘intellect’), on the other hand, is concerned with discrimination, judgment etc and functions optimally in stillness. A ‘trained’ mind (i.e. in one who has gained sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti) is one where manas is under control. In one who is enlightened, both aspects still exist and all types of thought will still occur. Obviously there will be less of the unhelpful thoughts to the extent that SCS was gained for enlightenment but desires etc are still likely as a result of prArabdha karma. They will have much less impact, however, because it is known that I am already unlimited and complete – in reality I can want for nothing.

I would call a mind ‘still’ when it is not clouded by the circling thoughts etc. It is still operating and, indeed, may well be processing input to a greater degree than normal, but it now does so with supreme efficiency and buddhi is able to direct the process optimally.

Q: Would you please help me understand why Advaita Vedanta is not fatalism? 

A: The simple answer is that the absolute truth, the ‘bottom line’ of advaita, is that there is only brahman. There are not two things. Therefore, there is no cause and effect, no time or space. There is no such thing as karma, no world, no jIva. Consequently, there is no such thing as fatalism.

At the empirical level. advaita utilizes concepts such as karma as interim explanations to satisfy the questioning mind temporarily as its understanding grows. Within this context, although advaita tells us that our bodies and situation result from karma gained in previous lives, it also tells us that it is how we act now that determines future karma and, in the moment of action, we can choose to ‘act, not act or act differently’ to some degree.

Q: I have looked at your definition of 'enlightenment' at your website and I completely agree with what you have said here.

On the other hand I have maybe even intentionally used the word 'enlightenment' in an absolute sense meaning the same as 'oneness' or 'one'.

I would like to ask you about what you say below:

Liberation does not concern the person, for liberation is freedom from the person." (Ref. 48) Tony Parsons (who is a neo-advaitin teacher) says: "There is no such thing as an 'enlightened person'. No person has ever been 'enlightened'." (Ref. 47) Jean Klein is correct to the extent that he uses the word ‘liberation’; Tony Parsons is wrong since he uses the word ‘enlightened’. N.B. Remember the definition of person given in 105 to 109. It is the jIva who gains enlightenment, and it takes place in the mind as is explained in 99.

The sentence from Jean Klein seems quite clear. The seeing of the non-solid, unstable and unreal nature of the 'person' is liberation.  Liberation happens from the person. It does not happen to the person. This seems very clear. 

Now what about the statement of Tony Parsons? If the 'person' is only an illusion that appears in oneness, then would it not be correct to say that a person never becomes enlightened?

The 'person', the illusion of course, is oneness - that is clear. Therefore, in my maybe (wrong) usage, I would say the 'person' is 'enlightenment', is oneness. But it can not become enlightened. It can only be seen through as being an appearance.

Or do you mean that, from the viewpoint of the person, the person can become enlightened? But this can only seem so when looking from the viewpoint of the person. It seems as if a person has become enlightened, but actually oneness has lost one more illusory belief in a 'person'. Only the 'person' can see another 'person' as being  or becoming enlightened. In truth, both personas are just an appearance. In that light I could understand the sense of your critique on Tony's statement.

A: I understand what you are saying here and I do agree that I ought to have expanded a bit on the statement you quote.

The word ‘liberation’ is actually a bit misleading in the Jean Klein statement. To liberate means to make free. ‘Who-I-really-am’, brahman, is already free. ‘Who-I-think-I-am’ does not really exist. However, at the level of empirical reality, the person and the world do exist. Once self-knowledge (enlightenment) is gained, it is known that the person that I thought myself to be is only name and form of the non-dual brahman. But the person does not thereby disappear. The name and form remains as before, up until death of the body-mind; it is simply that it is now known not to be a separately existing ‘object’. So it is not really true to say that ‘liberation is freedom from the person’. What he really means is that enlightenment is the realization that I am already free and that I never was a ‘person’.

The second aspect comes back to the definition of enlightenment that I gave. Enlightenment is the event in the mind of a person when it is realized that I am already free and that I never was a ‘person’. So it is certainly meaningful, from the standpoint of empirical reality, to talk about an ‘enlightened person’. Tony has to accept that there are people – after all, he holds meetings and advertizes for people to come to them. These people are (usually) not enlightened. If they were, they wouldn’t attend his meetings! (joke!)

I think your problem (apart from my lack of clarity) is in confusing absolute reality with the empirical appearance. This is the source of most misunderstandings in advaita. All teaching takes place in duality, necessarily, yet endeavors to discuss non-duality. In absolute reality, there are no persons and the Self is ever-free. In empirical reality, there are people, some of whom are attempting to become enlightened.

Q: I feel that I am lacking a sense of direction or needing some 'light to be shed on my darkness'! I feel that I am not 'at peace'. The truth is I often get fooled into believing I am this character who is stressed out and has lots of problems. I know that I am not, but I still get sucked into buying the "Theater of the lie". I love the idea of "As if living" but can truly say that I haven't really experienced it. That is to say this manifestation, driven by programming and conditioning, believes itself to be the 'real deal' and believes its own thoughts to be truth.

A: Basically, there is no quick solution to the sort of problems you describe. Some may give you a glib answer implying that you do not really need to do anything at all. This is not the case (try it and see!). The only way to realize that there are not really any problems at all is to gain self-knowledge. And the only proven way to do this is to go to a good, qualified teacher who can systematically remove your self-ignorance. This requires complete commitment for an indefinite period. It has to be the only thing that really matters. If you tell me where you are, I may be able to recommend a school or teacher, (though probably not).

Q: The closest teacher that I know of is X. I have attended one of his meetings but a 65 hour work week, a wife and two kids won't always allow me to go. I understand what your saying: that this takes commitment and there is no response that you can give me in an e-mail that will bring about the required self-knowledge. I was helped much by Y, who is the one who recommended your books to me.  I see that he was able to deconstruct every concept, idea and belief system I had, exposing the conditioning and programming for what it was. Other teachers like X where able to show me the real me  that never changes, always is and so forth.  I guess the point of the E-mail was to say that because I am often attached to a false sense of self, there is pain. I think I was looking for a quick fix to the problem but as you guessed that didn't happen.

A: I’m afraid a 65-hour working week is not conducive to spiritual seeking! As you probably know, those seekers who are really serious in India give up family, work and possessions to devote full time effort. It does sound as though you need to take a proper traditionally-based course from first principles as it were. The most widely available organization is that founded by Swami Chinmayananda. The Central Chinmaya Mission Trust (http://www.chinmayamission.com/index.php) lists missions and ashrams throughout the world and Chinmaya Mission West (http://www.chinmaya.org/) lists centers in North America. You do have to attend on a regular basis in order to really benefit.

It is said that, when a seeker is ready, a teacher will appear. I prefer to think of it as prioritizing of time. When it matters enough, you will find the time! Lest this seems harsh, you can always remember (even if you do not really believe it) that none of ‘this’ is really real and ‘who-you-really-are’ is already perfect, complete and unlimited.

Q: Can you advise how one can 'make real' the teaching or information that we read or hear? Even if one does not actually attain enlightenment, can one at least gain relative ease in one's life? I am thinking of the practice of shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana. It seems that people are often so involved with the first (shravaNa) that they never get around to the second two. (manana and nididhyAsana) They want more and more information until their heads almost explode, but they don't know how to go beyond the information presented via teacher, or book.

These people may not actually be seeking enlightenment, but rather, freedom from a-lot of 'issues', such as depression, addiction, attachments, etc. With correct teaching, might they begin to find some peace in there lives? Is it possible that shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana can function in a specifically therapeutic setting?  And am I correct in assuming that that is why most therapy does not work; i.e. because they focus to much on shravaNa, but lack manana and nididhyAsana?  How does one truly awaken to the information presented, so that it becomes Knowledge? How does one go about truly learning?

A: The practices of shravaNa, manana and nididhyAsana (SMN) are for the gaining of self-knowledge or enlightenment. They do not in themselves have anything to do with “finding peace in one’s life”. Solving the problems of desire, fear, attachments, anger, blame etc. etc. is achieved as a result of quite different practices, which are also to a large degree a pre-requisite for SMN.

These practices are collected together under the heading of sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti and they are described in such documents as tattva bodha (or see pages 216 – 224 of my ‘Back to the Truth’. Following karma yoga practices or the rAja yoga techniques of Patanjali covers all of these. And they really need to be undertaken with the guidance of a teacher, who can set exercises, monitor progress etc. If you join an appropriate organization, these will be covered in parallel with the SMN. It is a slow, methodical process to break down the bad habits that we have acquired from birth and you cannot expect to see many immediate results. Mental disciplines, viveka, vairAgya etc. gradually develop over the years rather than weeks so that, hopefully, they mature as understanding grows from the teaching itself. Then, when enlightenment dawns, jIvanmukti may quickly follow.

Q: Could you explain how it can be that there are different philosophies in India that all claim to be derived from the same scriptures? How can Shankara (advaita), Ramanuja(vishiShTAdvaita) and Madhva (dvaita) hold such widely different views? Why should we accept one rather than the others? Surely only one can be true, in which case the others are mistaken.

A: Enlightenment equates to Self-knowledge, which 'comes' when Self-ignorance is eliminated. When it happens, it is direct and immediate; there is no longer any question of doubt. The best metaphor that I have come across is the one used to explain bhAga tyAga lakShaNa - see http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/definitions/bhAga.htm. This sort of realization can come about 'spontaneously' in one who is 'ready' but it is counter-intuitive. (After all, we can see separate things and persons out there. How could we naturally think that reality is non-dual?) This is why it is generally thought necessary that a seeker should have a qualified teacher - one who can use techniques such as bhAga tyAga lakShaNa to undermine the habitual thought patterns and point towards the truth.

The reason that the scriptures are so valuable is that so many of these techniques are contained within, albeit sometimes in an archaic form that is not readily accessible. Everyday experience and the methods of science, for example, will never bring about an understanding of Self, because they are necessarily objective (and ultimately there is only the 'subject').

But yes, you are right, there are various interpretations of the scriptures - the dualism of Madhva and the qualified non-dualism of Ramanuja are just the more well-known ones. Each has to make his own decision as to which teaching to follow. If you read Shankara's bhAShya on the Brahma Sutras, you will find that he takes the arguments of the alternative viewpoints and elaborately and systematically refutes them. The fourth prakaraNa of Gaudapada's kArikA-s on the Mandukya Upanishad also devotes a lot of space to proving ajAti vAda and destroying all of the alternative views that attempt to demonstrate that there are such things as creation or causality.

All of the material is there if you want to investigate it. Or you can just take the word of others who have been through the process before you. Until realization dawns, there is always an inevitable element of faith.

Q: Why did you write Enlightenment: the path through the jungle?

You seem to be saying that Advaita is best taught by "tradition", and you name some names of teachers but without any strong endorsement. You like Swami Dayananda  who pretty clearly thought little of the Maharshi. * (The latter is given credit in your book for "enlightened" but not "traditional".) You don't think satsang is a good place to actualize enlightenment, but give Sailor Bob some credit for being helpful. You seem to qualify so many of your statements, especially finding a "real" teacher. You clearly "bad-mouth" satsang (I have never attended, but I have read those who seem to use this delivery method as a core of their presentation of the Truth.)

Your emphasis on "tradition" puzzles me when you return over and over again to the assertion that only traditional teachers teach with a method. Again, from my world of appearance, how can method take on such importance? Wouldn't the reality/actuality of "consciousness is all there is" be more important even if it came without a "how-to" manual? If you are simply intending to contrast the need for method as opposed to some whose method dwells only on the absolute, then you have a point.

Is it safe to conclude since Poonja (apparently) favored "transmission" over instruction and scripture, that he lacks legitimacy?

[* Note that, as far as I am aware, there is no evidence for this. According to one of his students, "Swamiji has a very high regard for Ramana. He even visited Ramana's ashram during his own spiritual search trying to find someone there who could help him, though Ramana himself had already died by that time." He has also written a book: 'Talks on Upadesa Saram. (Essence of the Taching) of Ramana Maharshi'.]

A: Why did I write it? I explain this in the Introduction.

Many teachers and writers have useful things to say and I particularly recommend, for example, Leo Hartong and David Carse, who are both neo-advaitins. The point is that Enlightenment is Self-knowledge and the seeker begins from the position of not knowing who he really is. If a teacher simply says ‘You are That (non-dual reality)’, it is unlikely to be of any help at all because it is counter-intuitive and against his everyday experience. What is needed is gradual, reasoned explanations and pointers that bring about successive sublations of prior understanding until such time as the realization occurs of itself. Some satsang teachers do utilize proven techniques but, as the book points out, an occasional 2-hour meeting, on random topics is never going to provide a gauged education for all attendees. Traditional teachers would never attempt to do this. Seekers have to commit for however long it takes. Qualified traditional teachers have many techniques at their disposal and can bring them out at the right time as part of a steady progression.

What you are objecting to in respect of ‘strong endorsement’ (or disapproval) may simply be that I specifically set out *not* to single out any teachers. I wanted to emphasize principles rather than people so as not to antagonize anyone.

Papaji did not belong to any sampradAya so could not be regarded as ‘traditional’ (this also applies to Ramana of course, but there will always be occasional ones who prove to be brilliant teachers simply because of their deep understanding and ability to transmit this to others, irrespective of any ‘formal’ qualification).

Q: Thank you for the highly informative site. I was wondering if in your studies you have ever come across an in depth discussion of what is sometime called 'the sound current' or sometimes referred to as shabd or naam etc. I understand it is in the realm of phenomena, so is probably not in strict alignment with your area of investigation. Just wondering if you have run across it in your travels.

There is an Indian philosophy called sphoTa vAda, which is specifically (entirely?) interested in sound and there is much written about it. I think the classic work is the vAkyapadIya by bhartRRihari. But it is nothing to do with advaita and is refuted by vyAsa and Shankara in the brahma sutra. And that's about the extent of my knowledge I'm afraid!

Q: You had in a previous email said that free will is an illusion. From Shri Shantananda Saraswati,
Shankaracharya  in Feb. of 1974, he responds to a question about bhAvana [the 'attitude or outlook' etc that one forms in the mind] as " The laws of the universe bind man in every aspect of his existence except in one aspect. The individual is free in bhAvana. An individual can dedicate any bhAvana to anyone. He can deliberately create a bhAvana within himself and work accordingly. Even in miserable conditions, people become happy or in happy conditions become miserable because they choose it like that". Doesn't this suggest free will?

A: If you read the various questions and answers at my website, as well as my essay on the topic, you will see that I make it clear that absence of free-will is only admitted as part of the final teaching of advaita. (Similarly in respect of creation.) During the earlier stages of the teaching, limited free will is certainly acknowledged, within the restrictions of the law of karma. Otherwise the practical teaching (puruShArtha) would make no sense.

As regards Shri Shantananda Saraswati, he has certainly left a legacy of some excellent quotations. However, there is in his teaching often a very confusing admixture of material from philosophies other than advaita, including sAMkhya, sphoTa and yoga so I would never recommend him to anyone not very familiar with the correct advaita teaching.

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