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'm having problems reconciling my daily life and career with the wish to pursue a spiritual path (which is the most important aspect of my life). I believe that the world is an illusion but how does this help when I have to earn money to live? I hold a senior position in an IT company and there is considerable pressure to work all hours, seek promotion and so on but none of this really interests me. Accordingly I am finding motivation very difficult. I have also had the feeling for a long time that I would really find satisfaction working with the disadvantaged but am worried that, if I gave up my current job to do this, I might regret it later.

How should one reconcile the self-interest of a job in modern society with the desire to gain self-knowledge? What does advaita (and in particular the Bhagavad Gita) have to say about it? Is there always a 'right action'? Is it the case that each person has a 'calling' or is this just another ego-based desire?

A: This is a very real problem as opposed to the many theoretical or academic questions which are often posed. And you are right to say that it is a ‘Gita problem’.

It is not the sort of problem to analyze and go over and over in your mind – this will only obscure the issues. It is rather the sort of question that you put on hold for a while and then later pose in silence, following meditation for example. In fact, if you relate to the phrase, it is something that is answered by the heart rather than the mind.

The way that you describe it, it does sound as though serving the disadvantaged might be your ‘destiny’. The phrase ‘svadharma’ in the Gita refers to that which you ought to pursue as required to fulfill your own particular destiny (neutralize your saMskAra). Earning lots of money, gaining status etc can never be svadharma – these are the false aims instilled by modern society. I tend to think of ‘career’ in the sense of a car ‘careering’ downhill, out of control! But, as you and the Gita point out, you do have to act. Knowing that the world is mithyA is no excuse for failing to get up in the morning!

But, of course, you are nervous at the idea of giving up your job and going into the unknown; this is certainly understandable. I think that the most important thing you should do is follow up the teacher pointers that I gave you. Sign up with one of Swami Dayananda’s disciples and attend classes regularly without fail. There is no question but that gaining Self-knowledge is the single most important thing that you can do. As long as you are doing this and know that you are on a clear path to achieving this, the other issues can assume lesser importance. This need not conflict with your existing job as long as your priorities are clear and the job does not demand too much of your time. You may know (or if not will be interested to learn) that Swami Parthasarathy, who has been giving Gita talks around the world for many years, also gives talks to high-powered executives about action, efficiency etc. There is certainly no reason why any job cannot be approached with the mindset of a Gita student and a seeker of truth.

Q: I was going through some of Nisargadatta Maharaj sayings  In "Seeds Of Consciousness" He said: "There is the true Awareness, from which comes consciousness, which is your feeling ‘I am’. Be one with your consciousness and that is all that you can do, the Ultimate must come to you. You can only watch what happens – there is nothing you can do to get it."

My question would be, what is the point in his referring to consciousness 'coming out of' True Awareness? Is Awareness another term for the Absolute? I have not heard many teachers doing that, except in Dzogchen where Awareness is our True State prior to anything else. Is that what Maharaj was referring to?

A: Nisargadatta uses the terms in the opposite way to most teachers. Most teachers tend to equate brahman with Consciousness (with a capital ‘C’). When we are still identified with this body-mind, we nevertheless claim to be conscious, both of ourselves and of other people and things. To avoid confusing this ‘personal consciousness’ with the absolute Consciousness, we might call it ‘awareness’. Nisargadatta simply interchanges these terms for some reason (to confuse seekers?). So, yes, Nisargadatta’s usage of ‘Awareness’ is another name for the Absolute.

You have to remember that this is a transactional distinction. From the standpoint of absolute reality, there cannot be two things.

Q: Thanks for forwarding the Advaita Journal.

Not just in the journal but in many books and discussions the term 'mind' appears regularly when it is clear that a brain process or function is the more accurate term. I feel that ambiguous terms such as 'mind' reinforces the idea that we have one. I am not referring of course to the concept of 'Universal Mind' as used to describe 'One' or whatever.

One of the questions in the journal mentioned enlightenment being 'heart-based' as against being 'an event of the mind' (intellectual), you rightly pointed out that the heart was once thought to be the seat of the mind.

Just as the heart had (and still has) a particular spiritual meaning for some, so to has the mind. When we use the convention mind (or 'ego', 'me', 'I' etc.) it is obvious that many do not make the association that 'mind' is just the accumulated, stored experiences or memory in the brain; mind being its contents.  

It is a simple, mental step to see that mind is not a real entity but the result of brain activity. It is further obvious that aspects of this 'mind' include the accumulated experiences that produce the concept of the person, the 'me', 'ego', or 'I'. This initial realisation comes with just a bit of self observation; some would call it true meditation - meditation without recourse to system or practice. 

From here on the 'seeker' is 'freed'. Whatever he then practices or non-practices is just the mind/ego trying to reassert itself through activity and concepts - which again can be seen or observed as it arises though without any naming or analysing process. The particular 'personality' will continue to do whatever his conditioning dictates; we can relax and get on with 'Life'.

A: I understand all that you say. In fact, according to advaita, the ‘mind’ is actually made up of several separate, subtle ‘organs’: manas is the logic processor, chitta is the memory, buddhi is the decision-maker and ahaMkAra is the ego. And all of this is in the ‘subtle’ realm and not the gross.

But you can actually ignore all of that. Even if your version is a better way of describing it, it makes no difference. *Everything* in the gross, subtle and causal realms is mithyA, meaning that it is not real in itself but has only dependent reality. It is all merely name and form of brahman (or Consciousness if you prefer). The metaphor often used is that of bangle, chain and ring only being name and form of the actual reality – gold.

Also, your ‘self observation’ only tells you what you are not; it doesn’t tell you what you are. Is this ‘freedom’? And who is it that ‘relaxes and gets on with life’?

Q: I like the term mithyA - only having dependent reality, all being name and form - and I appreciate the metaphor.

I agree, there is no-one (In the sense of a'me' or 'I') to 'relax and get on with life', but there is a body/brain that can become so infected with thoughts, concepts, beliefs - you know, the contents which is the mind - that to drop all these, or rather to see them for what they are, is the only freedom. It is the freedom that allows the brain to be clear and together with the body return to its natural state.

At the point of dying, people are often seen to smile; at the point of losing consciousness there is a momentary blissful feeling and on awakening from a deep sleep there is initially a feeling of well-being. That is of course until the awakening brain through years of habitual activity and conditioning plugs into the mind/ego process.

I must confess at this point that my take on 'oneness' is the oneness that is the physical (natural) universe. There is a 'something' that is 'everything' (and of course are not 'things'), that has been given many unsatisfactory names when trying to talk about it. I add to this by calling it 'Nature' or 'Life'. I see everything as being with, of and is 'Life'.

The brain is responsible for all that we know and are; 'we' are the brain. Every sensation, feeling, belief, vision, concept, observation - including awareness, consciousness, realisation and enlightenment are products of the brain. At this moment 'Life' is being through us and is us. There is nothing to seek and the only realisation is the realisation that we are merely - though a wonderful - biological organism.

Although just a mass of whirling particles which the brain makes sense of to exist, we and the world are real. It is only the mind/ego function of the brain that denies this through making every passing experience and stored memory into a concept - and like a virus concepts are contagious and can be passed on until we have a million ideas of who or what we are - or no idea at all.

A: You would get on very well with another correspondent of mine who is always trying to explain advaita in terms of science.  I have made no end of attempts to disillusion him but to no avail. And that reminds me of the story of the Western professor who visits the Zen master. Here is how I expressed it in ‘How to Meet Yourself’:

“A professor of philosophy is visiting a Zen monastery in Japan and goes to visit the Zen master to ask for explanations about the teaching. The master invites him to take tea. The professor holds out his cup and the master pours the tea… and carries on pouring, until the tea is overflowing onto the floor.
“The cup is full,” complains the professor, “it will not hold any more.”
“Just so!” replies the master. “You, too, are like the cup. How can I explain anything to you when your mind is already full of what you consider to be the truth?”

Please do not take this as a personal affront. I just wanted to point out that it is always going to be very difficult to be open to philosophies such as advaita if you are already sure that science has an adequate explanation.

Q: The idea or concept of 'Beingness': I have been reading a great deal on this idea that Beingness is perhaps the closest word or concept in terms of knowing who you are as God. I agree that enlightenment is gaining self-knowledge so as to eradicate the ignorance of who you are in terms of the false “self / identity”. So my question is: can you define Beingness in light of enlightenment and how to arrive at it?

Westerners are strongly hung up on “doing” as opposed to the Easterners' “being.” Somehow I think that the universe or God is about balancing these two but knowing that you are not the 'doer'. It occurred to me that the Doer is 'Beingness'. Maybe THAT is the question? What is the difference, in the light of Knowing yourself as God, between doing and being?

A: I’m afraid I have great antipathy to words like ‘beingness’, ‘knowingness’ and other such ‘waffly’ words, whose meaning never seems to be defined by the author. It is true that, ultimately, one cannot talk about the non-dual reality (because it is non-dual) but this is no excuse for sloppy language.   One can say that who-I-really-am exists, is conscious and is unlimited and that ‘everything else’ has only seemingly separate existence; that it is only name and form of that same reality that I am. Such statements, even though they may seem counter-intuitive, at least ‘mean’ something!   Having said that, your question “can you define Beingness in light of enlightenment and how to arrive at it?” leaves me a bit cold, I’m afraid. You can define any word to mean whatever you like but you have to ask whether, in the end, it actually helps you to make any progress in understanding.

With regard to your subsidiary question, “how to arrive at enlightenment”, the answer is that enlightenment is the same as acquiring self-knowledge. For that, mere words or definitions are not enough. You need to have your self-ignorant concepts undermined and replaced by reasoned understanding about the nature of your self and the seeming world. The traditional source of this knowledge is the Upanishads and later works and, because they are so old and difficult to understand, you really need someone who does understand them to interpret them for you.   I wouldn’t worry too much about the apparent conflict between doing and being. It is true that who-you-really-are simply *is*, whilst it is only matter that apparently ‘does’. But, even after enlightenment, the ‘person’ will continue to (seemingly) act for the rest of the life of that body-mind. The difference is that the enlightened person knows that this is all a ‘show’ and what is real remains unchanged and unchanging.


Q: I understand that, as long as we hold to the idea that I exist as an individual entity, I will continue to act as if I have to do something in order to get something or somewhere. David Carse, in his book “Perfect Brilliant Stillness”, says that one should not charge money for anything spiritual The bible says that God, “clothes even the birds and the flowers, how much more will God take care of his own.” Even some of the satsang teachers, e.g. Stephen Wingate, Sailor Bob, don’t concern themselves with donations or charging.  

They have seemingly realized that, since nothing matters and all is just happening, everything is being taken care of by the 'One'. There is no need to 'do', or 'have', but to just BE! And allow 'It' to take care of our needs. That, in my understanding, does not mean to “not act”, but to leave the results to God. It is not in your control.  

Can any so-called enlightened person charge for anything? None of the sages such as Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta, Sri Atmananda Krishna Menon ever charged, at least to my knowledge. 

A: Traditionally, teachers never asked for money but then most such teachers were probably saMnyAsin-s and either lived in an Ashram or travelled around accepting only food and minimal clothing from others. I don't think this style of living would work very well in the West! If you have read my book ‘Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle’, you will know that I do not condone satsang teaching, since there are many reasons why it cannot satisfy the needs of the seeker. But clearly such teachers need to pay for their accommodation and travel expenses etc. so would obviously need to charge something unless they were independently rich. And Ashrams that provide accommodation and food for visitors today (at least in the West) have to pay for that somehow. So I think the point is that it must be reasonable to charge something. What is not reasonable is for a successful teacher to become rich on the proceeds! The other point is that teaching should never be refused to someone who asks but is unable to pay.  

You should also bear in mind that an enlightened person is still a person, i.e. their ‘personality’, likes and dislikes, skills and propensities do not suddenly disappear. Over time, a j~nAnI is likely to become a jIvanmukta and will ‘acquire’ the serenity, love etc. of the stereotype sage but, initially at least, it is likely that someone who is both enlightened and has teaching skills will still exhibit ‘human’ traits!


Q: I understand the basic concept of “action without attachment to the fruits of the labor or action”… to just do something (action) simply because it is the right thing to do, but without any desire for a specific outcome, either for yourself, or for another, etc. To remove “ego” from the action.

In getting into the study of Vedanta, especially Advaita Vedanta, it is all very lofty stuff, and although I understand much of it, it can be challenging to wrap your head around sometimes. I am in the middle of reading your “Book of One.” I haven’t seen (yet) in my reading how to connect the really “lofty stuff” with the fact that I am a living human being here on the earth, who must do things with and for others while “I” am here in this body, this life.

I have read Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Upanishads, which I like very much. In it, there are references to the “householder”, with instructions on how to behave, to do the “right” things, etc. And I have read some about how a “householder” can also pray and meditate on his personal “god” (or deity; a representation of one aspect of “God”), which can help him connect with the divine. All “down to earth stuff”, so we can work towards being in the service of the Divine while we are a mortal human.

I was curious as to doing a “right action,” but wanting the outcome of that action to benefit that being; to relieve their suffering, make them well, heal them, calm them, etc. As long as it is a “right action” and you do not want it for “yourself,” why is that wrong? For instance, I have a dog. Or a child. I love and care for this dog, or child. I am responsible for their well-being and welfare. The dog gets hit by a car and breaks his leg, or the child gets very ill. I must nurse and treat either of them. I have to take them to the doctor, change bandages, give medicines, feed them by hand, sit by the bed, sooth them. I only want for them to get better for them, not for myself. It is their own life and health at stake… I am nursing them, but it is their life. I want them to get better so that they can live their own healthy life.

Now of course you could say that in Advaita, there is no “other.” And there is no “I.” So “I” am not loving and caring for “another.” There is no "other." But the “I” as “Self” is actually caring for the “Self”… one and the same. So if you put it in these terms, then the Self is caring for the Self (which sort-of cancels itself out, so to speak), and there would be no need to desire any type of outcome either way.

But how do you get around it as a mortal human? I know that I can strive to “eliminate the ego” (for instance, “action without attachment”), but I may not be able to do it completely in this lifetime, or maybe not at all in this lifetime. Can you “want something good” for “someone else” and not for “yourself?” Or would you say the ego would never allow this; that even if you thought you wanted it for the other person or animal, you really wanted them to get better for yourself…because you love them, and you wanted them to live so they’d be around… and love is an “attachment.”

How did Mother Theresa and many others like her apply this concept to their works? How does compassion and love fit in? What about ministering to the mortal body… nursing care, veterinary care, feeding the hungry, etc.?

Thank you for your books (I hope to read the others sometime) and website... and for your time. I started with Meister Ekhart, who I actually could identify with his writings!! Then I hooked up with a friend of mine who gave me a reading list. I then read the Upanishads, the Gita, and then Vedanta: The Heart of Hinduism. I'm so glad to have been introduced to this. Vedanta is about the closest thing for me, about how I "believe" in God, or the Divine nature. It makes more sense to me than just about anything else. "Advaita" seems to be the most orthodox (or strictest form) of Vedanta... perhaps more rigid in its philosophies?? I'm not sure.

A: The various types of action relate to the theory of karma, which in turn is supposed to ‘drive’ the person’s life and determine future rebirth etc. There are three classes of motivation influencing any action: a selfish motivation is deemed to be ‘bad’ and incurs demerit or sin (pApa); an unselfish motivation is deemed to be ‘good’ and incurs merit (puNya); an action which is purely in response to the need of the moment, with neither selfish nor unselfish motivation is ‘right’ and incurs no karma at all. If you have accumulated mostly pApa by the time of the body’s death, your next life will be ‘lower’, i.e. an animal, insect, tree or stone (in descending order!) If you have gained puNya, you will have a better life. Lots of puNya may even take you to heaven (svarga) for a while, although you will eventually have to come back as a man, since the ultimate aim it to achieve enlightenment and then not come back at all.  

So goes the theory. And its value as a guide to living one’s life is obvious. From the standpoint of absolute reality, of course, there is no world to begin with and, since you were never born, the question of rebirth has no relevance.  

The way to reconcile the ‘lofty stuff’ with one’s everyday life is essentially this: Initially, one follows the guidance such as that above and aims to gain such virtues as viveka, vairAgya and the shamAdi shakti sampatti as described in the scriptures (and Book of One). The purpose of this is to prepare the mind to be able to understand and ‘take on board’ the self-knowledge teaching of the guru. At some point, enlightenment will occur and the truth is then realized for oneself. Thereafter, one will naturally come to act in accordance with this knowledge. (Initially, the habits of a lifetime may mean that apparently selfish acts still take place but these will diminish as further nididhyAsana is done.)  

Note that there is never any question of ‘striving to eliminate the ego’. You cannot do this (who would do it?) and there is, in any case, no need to do it. Whilst the body-mind remains, there will always be an ego. What you are aiming for is simply self-knowledge.  

Advaita is that branch of Indian philosophy which accepts the authority of the shruti (Upanishads) and interprets them in a non-dualistic way. ‘Orthodox’ or ‘strict’ are not appropriate adjectives. There are other branches which accept shruti but interpret them dualistically or partially so. And there are some that do not accept shruti at all. (Vedanta simply refers to the end portion (anta) of the veda-s, i.e. the Upanishads or j~nAna kANDa.)


Q: Is it necessary to follow an ethical lifestyle, practice karma yoga etc before one is able to appreciate the higher teaching of advaita? James Swartz says that a 'qualified' student is one who is 'mature'.

A: It is certainly the case that one cannot ‘take on board’ the teaching of advaita if the mind has not been sufficiently prepared. This preparation is what Shankara referred to as sAdhanA chatuShTaya sampatti, and you can find details about it at the website if you enter it into the ‘Search’ box. He said that an immature student could never gain enlightenment without a degree of attainment of SCS; someone with a medium degree of attainment could become enlightened but would not immediately gain the ‘fruits’ of enlightenment (peace, fearlessness etc); someone who was fully qualified could easily gain enlightenment and would then immediately gain the fruits (j~nAna phala or jIvanmukti). So, yes, you are right in what you say. If you find a good, traditional teacher, you will find that he/she addresses both aspects and you will gain ‘maturity’ along with self-knowledge. This is probably more acceptable to the western mind than trying to acquire a mature mind before beginning to study the scriptures!


Q: If God, me and the universe are not separate, then that would imply that what is 'out-there', the invisible and visible are one. And yet the world is real. I know that this is true from the vantage point of the unenlightened mind but that, from a sage's point of view, it is an 'illusion'.

It seems to be a contradiction that we 'create our world', but at the same time we only know that something exists when we become aware of it. If the key to something existing is our awareness of it (otherwise it does not exist), then how can we be responsible for creating it? I think I can grasp that we are God, but I am trying to understand how the world can be an illusion and yet we create it, since God does not get involved in the external world.

A: If I understand your question correctly, what you are asking is: “How can ‘I’ be said to create the world when, having attained self-realization, I then see that the world is an illusion?” Would this be a correct summary?

This is one of those questions in which there is confusion of levels. From the standpoint of the unenlightened person, there is a *real* world. This is analogous to the dream world being real for the dreamer – it is only discovered to have been illusory after he wakes up. (Note that it is the content of the dream, not the fact of there having been a dream that is illusory.) The analogy is not quite true, however. When the person becomes enlightened, he does indeed realize that the world is not real but the world does not thereby disappear (as did the dream on awakening). The enlightened person still sees the world and continues to act in it as though it were real for the remainder of the life of the body-mind. However, the enlightened person knows that this is appearance only; that all is simply name and form of the non-dual brahman. Advaita explains this by saying that, although the person creates the dream world himself, it is Ishvara who creates the waking world. Whereas the dream world exists only for that dreamer, the waking world exists for all persons. This is the distinction between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic, as explained in the Upanishads, particularly the Mandukya.

All of that, then, relates to the level of transactional reality. From the perspective of absolute reality, of course, there never has been a world; no person has ever been born; no God has ever created anything. Some teachers, particularly neo-advaitin ones attempt to make *only* such statements and attempt to deny the experiential world of duality. Traditional advaita, however, utilizes the former explanations as stepping stones to an appreciation of the absolute truth.


Q: As an individual, I am ignorant about most things but God is said to be all-knowing. When I become enlightened, I become 'one with God'. Why then do I not simultaneously become all-knowing too, able to predict the future, win the lottery etc?

A: The problem with your conception of ignorance and knowledge is two-fold really. Firstly, enlightenment is about the dawning of Self-knowledge and the elimination of Self-ignorance. This is the realization of the nature of the Self and reality (Everything is brahman, Thou art That etc.) As you probably know, Shankara is said to have summed this up as 'brahman is the ultimate reality; the world is mithyA; the jIva is not other than brahman'. The key to your problem is in the second of these - the world, together with its knowledge of 'things', and the dualistic 'knower' of those things, is mithyA. It is not really real, deriving its semblance of reality from brahman. It is name and form of that brahman only. There are not really any separate things, including a knower knowing facts about other things. This is the one aspect.

The other aspect is not dissimilar from the question of what happens to the mind of an enlightened 'person' when they become Self-realized. The answer hinges on the distinction between the microcosm and macrocosm at the level of transactional reality. The point here is that 'knowing' things at the level of the person involves that person's mind. And that person's mind will only know of 'things' with which it has come into contact, whether that be familiarity with a physical location or understanding of quantum mechanics. If you haven't spent many years learning Chinese, you are not going to be able to understand or communicate with a Chinese speaker, whether or not you are enlightened! And you are certainly not going to be able to see into the future - the human mind does not have an organ for this function!

The idea of 'knowing everything' is not a concept that applies to a person; it is a concept that applies to Ishvara - the Lord who effectively creates this world and allocates all of the jIva-s their particular roles in life according to their accumulated karma. Of course, Ishvara too is mithyA from an absolute standpoint but this is how the concept is used in the teaching of advaita.

The oft-quoted metaphor is that of seeing the sun rise and set. Even after learning that this is really an illusion caused by the rotation of the earth, one still sees this happening. So it is with the rest of Ishvara's projected illusion. The enlightened man can no more read minds or predict the future than he could before. So no winning lotteries by other than pure luck, I'm afraid!


Q: Are the vAsanA-s stored in the casual body (kAraNa sharIra) or subtle body (sUkShma sharIra)? In 'Back to the Truth' you state the former but I have heard that the kAraNa sharIra is a state of ignorance and that the vAsanA-s are stored in the subtle body.

A:If you press for a yes or no answer, I think one has to concede that, since the mind is resolved in deep sleep, the vAsanA-s have to be stored in the causal state. There is no avoiding this conclusion. The mitigating point is that the vAsanA-s only become manifest in the gross and subtle states, where they can be said to be stored in the subtle form. Swami Paramarthananda differentiates waking and dream from sleep by the words ignorance and error. Both ignorance and error are present in waking and dream but ignorance only in deep sleep. Since vAsanA-s are associated with the error aspect (i.e. we perceive and act according to fructifying saMskAra), this is where they are meaningful. Nevertheless, there is no escaping the fact that they must be somewhere in deep sleep! Hope this resolves the confusion.


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