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' .

Neo versus traditional Advaita... again

Q. Not sure where you stand on this (or if you take a stance at all) but I would just like to say that I don't think there's a difference between traditional and so-called neo-Advaita. I think it's another case of thought making distinctions where none are to be found. Advaita does indeed mean �not-two� and doesn't need to be broken down into sects as has happened to organized religion. The �vs� should be taken out of the equation.

A. Of course, the �bottom line� of traditional and neo-Advaita has to be the same but the approach to that bottom line differs drastically. My book Back to the Truth listed about ten of the ways in which they differ and my last book Enlightenment: the Path through the Jungle examined the different approaches in considerable depth. You have to appreciate that, from the perspective of the seeker after enlightenment, these differences make *all* the difference. If you have the guidance of a traditional teacher, there is no reason why this should not take you all the way. With a neo-Advaitin �non-teacher�, the only place you are likely to get to is Confusion.

Q. Seems to me that you've made your mind up, which, of course, is OK. One thing that can't be denied is that lots of apparent people who have spent decades seeking only find peace after realizing that they have been what they were seeking all along and this has happened many times through what I think you would label �neo-Advaita� teachings. I've talked to quite a few for whom this is the case. I'm sure you're a nice fellow, I just notice that it's a tendency of thought to attempt to understand �things� by dissecting them. In doing so, that which is one and whole is made to appear fragmented. I think you'd agree that Advaita, in its pure state, is about seeing the reality that underlies all appearances.

There are charlatans in what you call �neo-Advaita� as there are in every spiritual tradition but there are also genuine articles - people who aren't/weren't in it for the money, fame, etc. like Douglas Harding, Sailor Bob and John Wheeler. To each their own though; I say, �Whatever works.�

A. If you haven�t read my books, you shouldn�t jump to any conclusions based upon the few brief sentences of my response. I have made it quite clear that neo-teachings *can* work for those who have already been seeking for many years. And, as I already said below, �Of course, the "bottom line" of traditional and neo-Advaita has to be the same.' Again, if you read the books and my Q&A on the website etc., you will see that I recommend (the books of) people like Sailor Bob and John Wheeler. I don�t dispute what they say. I simply point out that the satsang �method� is most unlikely to succeed and give many reasons for this.

I agree � if it works, it is fine; the point I repeatedly make is that traditional Advaita has been proven to work over a couple of thousand years and it has a clear methodology. Neo-Advaita has been around a couple of decades and has, by its own admission, *no* methodology.

Consciousness, brahman and samAdhi

Q. First let me say that I really enjoyed your book Back To The Truth. I have been studying Advaita for several years now and find this book a very helpful and comprehensive reference.

Interestingly, your book did have some commentary at the very beginning that has disrupted my thinking on the subject quite a bit and I am hoping that you can recommend some material/article that addresses the issue. Simply put I am finding it difficult to logically counter the claim by modern psychologists that consciousness/awareness arises from the body. The basic issue for me is that the usual Advaita arguments on the subject don�t consider the value of third party observation. For example, on the argument that since the body �disappears� in deep sleep that you can�t be your body, one could easily say that it didn�t really disappear when in fact a third party could see you the whole time and wake you up at any moment. It was merely that your body has a process in which during deep sleep thoughts, dreams, and sensory perception as we usually understand them were shut down thereby explaining the void of deep sleep. Carrying the idea further one could say that the body is actually a constant between waking, dreaming, and deep sleep as evidenced by the fact that a third party can verify its presence throughout the day.

It is not that I totally disagree that 'I' am consciousness, it is that I�m not seeing a compelling case for why this 'I' is not dependent on the body (i.e., brain) or does not arise from it. The implication being that if the body were to die, my consciousness/awareness would also cease. Have you read anything from Advaita authors that directly counters the assertion I�ve outlined above?

A. This is a very deep question and not one that can be answered satisfactorily in a few sentences. In fact, it has been my intention for a few years now to write a book on the subject of consciousness, addressing the shortcomings of the various scientific/western philosophical views and presenting that of Advaita. Unfortunately, I have still not found time to read the (excellent) Susan Blackmore book and (promising) David Chalmers one that I purchased with this in mind ages ago. (I would naturally like to understand the Western position in some depth before attempting to counter it!) And my next two books are already contracted and the one after that planned. So, the earliest I could get around to it would be about 2012!

I am not aware of any books that specifically address your question. The one I know of which covers all of the topics in this general area is D. B. Gangolli�s The Magic Jewel of Intuition but your chances of obtaining a copy are virtually zero. I had great difficulty a few years back � there were only 1000 copies published in 1986. But it is in any case not very easy to read because the author did not have a very great command of the English language and some of the sentence constructions are terribly convoluted. Reading it caused me to write to him to ask a question that was not too dissimilar from your own. Unfortunately, he has died so I never received an answer!

The book that I am currently writing is a presentation of the Mandukya Upanishad and Gaudapada�s commentary on that. This deals with states of consciousness and proves, in a totally reasonable way, that who-I-really-am is the non-dual turIya and that the waker, dreamer and deep-sleeper are simply that same turIya �confused� by ignorance and error. So this may well clear up your concerns. (But the book will not be published until Spring 2011, called provisionally OM: Key to the Universe.)

It should help you to think of the problem in terms of subject and object. The reason that science can never provide any ultimate answer is that, by definition, it is always a subject trying to find out about an object. Whatever I investigate is always an object, with �I� as the subject. I cannot make �I� the object because that would necessitate another �I� to do the investigation. Your problem of �third party� is, to some extent, an illusory one. If �I� am conducting the investigation and trying to understand the nature of the objective universe, that universe has to include everything � all other persons and even �my own� body and mind. I must certainly take into account the observations of �others� and, indeed, this is how all teaching takes place, including Advaita. But, when it comes down to it, the only reality of which I can be absolutely certain is �I am�.

Another very helpful way to approach the subject is from the concept of mithyA. I don�t recall how I explained this in BttT but, if you read the story that forms the first definition of Advaita, this effectively explains the concept (and it will appear as the introduction to the next book). Once you appreciate that the entire world is mithyA, and that it is appearing to you, the observer, who are the only reality, you are almost there.

The point about deep sleep is that, in it, you are ignorant of the nature of reality but you do not, as a result of this, erroneously project a separate universe (as happens in waking and dream). Nevertheless, you are still present as consciousness. When you wake up, you are able to say that, �during the deep sleep, I was not aware of anything�. How could you say this if there was no conscious entity to know this? Some people have a problem with this explanation (I know that I did!). But consider: if I ask you �did you know anything?�, you will answer �No�. If I now ask you: �How do you know that you did not know anything?�, you can say �I know� with absolute certainty.

As regards dying, of course you can always argue that anything that anyone says about this is being said by someone who has not died! Whilst you still believe it to be a possibility that the world has a reality separate from you, the turIya consciousness, then the argument about the world being absent during deep sleep will not be of any help. Once you understand that this consciousness is the only reality, however, then you will know that nothing actually happens upon the death of the body. It is a mere rearrangement of molecules; new names and forms for the same �stuff�, which remains as the non-dual brahman, totally unaffected by any of the apparent changes. So you can take the view that �death� can, at worst, be no different from a prolonged deep-sleep. At best, of course, it can be like deep sleep minus the ignorance, if you have realized the truth prior to death!

Q. My latest round of reading has prompted a question that I'm hoping you may help me with. My question concerns the ring of gold analogy for the changelessness of brahman.

I understand from the analogy that the ring is mithyA and the gold is brahman. The implication being that 'change' as we perceive it is only at the apparent level while the substance (brahman) remains unchanged. Is it then correct to say that brahman does indeed change but only in form? I believe the answer is no since the upaniShads clearly state that brahman is changeless. That said, the fact remains that although I don't perceive an object's substance/essence (i.e., brahman) my senses do gather information that results in thoughts leading to the experience of change in the world of objects. But if brahman doesn't change even at the level of 'form' then I don't know how to rationalize changeless brahman with the experience of a changing world. Can you point me in the right direction on this one?

A. This is one of those �mixing levels� questions. The changeless brahman refers to paramArtha; the changing world refers to vyavahAra. brahman is never amenable to objectification in any way, is attributeless and without name or form. The world is intrinsically dualistic; ever changing and *only* name and form. So brahman doesn�t change. The apparently changing appearance of duality is the result of adhyAsa. In the end it is part of the adhyAropa-apavAda teaching of advaita. First read Chapter 6 of the Chandogya Upanishad with Shankara�s commentary to learn all about vAchArambhaNa and then read the Mandukya Upanishad with Gaudapada�s kArikA-s and Shankara�s commentary to learn about ajAti vAda.

Q. How much intellectual capacity is required for enlightenment? Based on my reading of 'traditional' sources I believe the answer is that one must actually be fairly bright to have a shot at samAdhi. A couple of pieces of evidence come to mind:

  1. Knowledge is required to remove ignorance: advaita concepts can be complex and therefore gaining this knowledge would require a fair amount of intellectual capability
  2. The gitA implies those with sattva tendencies to be bright and those filled with tamas to be dull
  3. Many of those who are well respected in the tradition seem fairly bright. Clear examples include Swami Dayananda, Swami Rama Tirtha, A. Parthasarathy, Sankaracharya, etc. Even those without formal education such as Ramakrishna Parmahansa possessed sharp critical thinking abilities.

The reason I ask is because I have not read any text that calls out this need for intellectual capacity in any explicit way. In addition, it also implies that not everyone has the ability to reach samAdhi in this lifetime even if they devote themselves as needed to sAdhanA. What do you think?

A. The first point about your question is that samAdhi has nothing to do with enlightenment. samAdhi is an experience, with a beginning and an end in time, however blissful. Enlightenment is about Self-knowledge. But, no, it is not intellectual. It is true that a tAmasika mind will not even think about enlightenment, let alone have the control and discrimination to be able to seek it. So, for most people, some degree of mental preparation is needed. But we already are brahman, so when it comes down to it, there is no need to do any thinking to see this. It is rather an intuitive leap that is made when a teacher gives us the right pointers.

Here is what Swami Dayananda says about it: 'Seeing yourself is something like seeing me. When you see me, it is not inferential, it is not intellectual � it is direct perception. Similarly, you exist � you are there to be seen � and the existing �you� has its own experiences. The teacher analyzes these experiences, your experiences. He does not talk about some strange personal experience. When you see what is being taught and discover it to be true, there is nothing intellectual or perceptual. It is self-recognition, born out of the teaching. It is direct knowledge. It is direct, just like the direct knowledge you have when you open your eyes and see me. It is a conditioning to think that knowledge of the Self is intellectual. We should knock off that conditioning. There is no intellectual knowledge about Atma.' [Dialogues with Swami Dayananda, Sri Gangadhareswar Trust, 1988. No ISBN.]

If you read the explanation of bhAga tyAga lakShaNa in the new Journal or at the website (or in Back to the Truth), you will see what I mean.

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