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' .

Awareness vs Consciousness Part I of II

Q. Thank you for the newest installment of the Advaita Journal. With respect, I must take issue with your statement that �Enlightenment is the realization in the mind of a person that "I am Brahman"'.

I've been re-reading the excellent Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj edited by Ramesh Balsekar, in which Nisargadatta takes pains to distinguish between (absolute) Awareness and (conditioned) Consciousness. He says, �Awareness is the source of Consciousnesss. Awareness is the primordial, original state, prior to space-time, needing no cause, no support." (p 12.)

He continues, �Consciousness arises from the sense "I am", causing a condition of duality. Consciousness is with a form, a reflection of Awareness against the surface of matter.�

On page 4, he says, �Between pure Awareness and Awareness reflected as Consciousness, there is a gap which the mind cannot cross.�

On page 38, he says, �If Consciousness is time-bound and is not eternal, any knowledge that is acquired through the medium of Consciousness cannot be the truth and is therefore ultimately to be rejected� In other words, the inter-related opposites, both knowledge and ignorance, are in the area of the known and therefore, not the truth - the truth is only in the unknown.�

This echoes the IshopaniShad, verse 9: �Into blinding darkness enter those who worship ignorance and those who delight in knowledge enter into still greater darkness.� This passage had me baffled until I came across Nisargadatta's explanation.

There are many instances in the writings of j~nAnI, both ancient and modern, to the effect that the Infinite cannot be grasped by the finite mind. Enlightenment cannot consist of a �realization in the mind� as the pure Unbounded brahman Awareness lies outside of the realm of the dualistic conscious mind and precedes it. The mind cannot �know� it, just as the eye cannot see itself.

As I have averred before, enlightenment is a complete change in the very structure of human existence, and, as the bhagavadgItA says, as different from any imaginable mental state as night is from day. Or at least this is the understanding of my poor, dualistic, conditioned mind!

It is true that anything at all that you might say about brahman is mithyA. How could it not be so, since reality is non-dual and language is dualistic? Note that this includes anything that Nisargadatta might have said, too! (Or the IshopaniShad.) (Or myself.) But might I point out that I never claimed that the mind could 'grasp the infinite'. What I said is that enlightenment is an event in the mind.

In a sense, this is a circular definition, because I define enlightenment as 'the event in the mind when a person realizes the truth about the Self and the world'. But let us take this step by step:

  1. Would you agree with the conclusions of advaita, as represented by the mahAvAkya-s?
  2. If so, then you accept that there is only brahman and, more especially, that you are already That.
  3. But, presumably, you also claim that you have not yet 'realized' this to be true yourself?
  4. Why not?
  5. The only answer, I suggest, is that your mind still has Self-ignorance. You can put this however you like (e.g. it has not yet 'clicked'; I am still attached to things; etc.) but all of them boil down to the same thing - the true state of affairs is covered over by ignorance.
  6. So, what needs to be done to resolve this?
  7. The *ONLY* thing that can remove the self-ignorance is Self-knowledge. This removal *must* take place in the mind. Where else could it take place?

You say that: �Enlightenment cannot consist of a "realization in the mind" as the pure Unbounded brahman Awareness lies outside of the realm of the dualistic conscious mind and precedes it.� I ask you: how could brahman lie outside of anything and still be brahman? 'There is *only* brahman' - sarvaM khalvidam brahma is fundamental to advaita. I agree that 'the mind cannot know it' (I never suggested it could) but the ignorance in the mind can seem to obscure it! The sun is always there but the clouds can make it seem otherwise. Disperse the clouds and the sun is where it always was. And yes, of course, everything seems different subsequent to enlightenment, just as the landscape does when the fog clears.

There is no mysticism in advaita. Everything is logical and reasonable. There is no 'complete change in the very structure of human existence'. All remains as it was before - brahman is changeless. It is only our perception at the empirical level that changes - drastically though this might be.

Q. I'm afraid I don't know the mithyA and I'm not familiar with the mahAvAkyas. I am familiar with the writings of the ancient sages in the Vedas, the upaniShads, the bhagavadgItA, the Yoga Sutras, the Yoga Vasistha, and some of the Buddhist sutras and the Mathnawi of Rumi. I've also read the writings of some of the modern of j~nAnI, like Ramana Maharishi, Nisargadatta, Robert Adams, Eckhart Tolle, et al.

I've been a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation for 38 years, and thanks (I believe) to that technique I've had some small glimpses of the fourth state of Consciousness (turIya).

Well you are right, brahman cannot lie �outside� of anything� when speaking of that which is beyond words, it's easy to misspeak. I was thinking of the IshopaniShad, which says, �It (brahman, the Absolute, the Unconditioned) is unmoving, one, swifter than the mind. The senses do not reach It as It is ever ahead of them. Though Itself standing still It outstrips those who run. In It the all-pervading air supports the activities of beings. It moves and It moves not; It is far and It is near; It is within all this and It is outside all this. And he who sees all beings in his own Self and his own Self in all beings, he does not feel any revulsion by reason of such a view.

�When, to one who knows, all beings have, verily, become one with his own Self, then what delusion and what sorrow can be to him who has seen this oneness? He has filled all; He is radiant bodiless, invulnerable, devoid of sinews pure, untouched by evil. He, the seer, thinker, all-pervading, Self-existent has duly distributed through endless years the objects according to their natures.�

I continue to think that enlightenment is much more than an �event in the mind�. To describe such a transformation as an �event in the mind� reduces it to the level of rearranging the mental furniture, or to a mental adjustment like converting to Roman Catholicism or moving to China and learning Chinese and marrying a Chinese spouse.

You ask, where else could the transformation take place? I suggest it takes place in the physiology. We are told there is Consciousness in everything, even rocks. The level of Consciousness of an organism is a function of the sophistication of the physiology. A plant has more consciousness (so to speak) than a rock. An animal has more than a plant. A man has more than an animal and a j~nAnI has more than an ordinary man. Physiological changes are associated with enlightenment. This is in the literature.

The ordinary man experiences three states of Consciousness - waking, dreaming and sleeping. Each is its own world, separate and distinct. The j~nAnI experiences the fourth state of Consciousness, turIya or Transcendental Consciousness, which is unconditioned, beyond time and space 24 hours a day as his constant reality. Against the background of turIya (so to speak) the conditioned states of Consciousness � waking, dreaming and sleeping � come and go like clouds in the sky but are of no particular concern to him because he has become the Eternal, Unchanging Absolute Reality which contains all things.

The ordinary man has for his sense of �self� the mind-body mechanism, he feels tiny, insignificant, isolated and vulnerable in a huge, hostile world that is outside of himself. The j~nAnI sees that the whole universe is his own Self, there is nothing outside of his own Self, and therefore he is invulnerable and cannot know any fear because fear is always of the other and for him there is no �other�.

The ordinary man lives in what he experiences as �time�, with a past, a present and a future. He lives in �space� where other objects appear to be at various distances from himself. The j~nAnI, through his continual experience of turIya, lives in an eternal present. Past and future are meaningless mental concepts. The ordinary man thinks that the world was created at some remote time in the past and continues through an unending chain of cause and effect. The j~nAnI sees that the Unchanging Eternal Self of Unbounded Awareness is the only reality, and that, for him a new �creation� occurs each instant, and in each instant that �creation� is destroyed so that another can take its place. For him the �world� was never created and will never be destroyed, because it is only an appearance. There is no space because his own Self contains the whole universe. [The continual creation of new universes by the Absolute Self (puruSha) is described in the Rig Veda (x. 90), the famous puruSha shuktum.]

The ordinary man believes that he is the doer of his actions and that he is responsible for their results. The j~nAnI realizes that he is not the doer, that nature does everything, and for him the whole world and all its activities come and go in the background like the TV being on in the next room. Unlike the ordinary man, he has no concern for the outcome of events because he is completely self sufficient. While the ordinary man perceives the world as dangerous, violent and hostile, the j~nAnI perceives the world as perfect. [Note the famous Sanskrit formula, pUrNamadah pUrNamidaM pUrNAt pUrNamudacyate - This is Perfect, That is Perfect, Perfection proceeds from Perfection; you take Perfection from Perfection and what remains is Perfection.]

This new �structure of existence� as I am calling it for lack of a better word is so TOTALLY different from what precedes it that it is far more than an �event in the mind�. After all, the mind is effectively destroyed in the process! It usually takes quite some time for an individual making this transition to assimilate it. Frequently the individual is so overwhelmed by his or her new-found j~nAnI -hood that they stop functioning as they had before and their friends and family believe them to be sick or insane. Ramana's parents took him to the temple seeking a �cure� when he stopped all the activities normal to a teenager in his time and place. Eckhart Tolle dropped out of his Ph.D program and spent two years just sitting on a park bench. Robert Adams' parents thought he was psychotic and took him to doctors. Suzanne Segal spent twelve years trying to regain her �old� self - the mental, conditioned one - when it was blown away by the turIya. Only after a dozen years did she realize that �the nothing I had become is the same as the everything that is�.

The j~nAnI�s situation is IMPOSSIBLE for the conditioned mind to understand because the conditioned mind is destroyed by j~nAnI -hood. He is beyond action or any needs or purpose whatsoever. As the bhagavadgItA (iii.17�18) describes it:

He whose delight is only in the Self
Whose satisfaction is in the Self,
And who is content only in the Self,
For him the need to act does not exist.

He has no purpose at all in action,
Or in non-action,
And he has no need of any being
For any purpose whatsoever.

I am happy to discuss topics such as this, the idea being that others may also be helped when the question is later posted to the Q&A section of the site. But I always assume that the questioner is asking for something to be explained. I do not want to take part in any argument where the questioner is certain they are right and they want to convince me of their viewpoint. It does seem that this is the case here, if you don't mind my saying so. The concept of mithyA, for example, is fundamental to an understanding of advaita and it has been discussed in many places on the website. There are even two separate pages devoted to it in the Terms and Definitions section. The mahAvAkya-s are also fundamental to advaita.

The four definitive ones are 'Consciousness is brahman', 'That thou art', This Self is brahman' and 'I am brahman' but there are many others, such as 'All this is brahman', 'brahman is the reality, the world is mithyA' etc. (And all but the last of these are in the upaniShads, with which you say you are familiar.) If you want to engage in a discussion of the merits of traditional advaita, you have to be familiar with aspects such as these. And, as I say, you will find ample discussion of them at the website, even if you do not want to look elsewhere.

You say that you have 'had some small glimpses of the fourth state of Consciousness (turIya)'. But there is no 'fourth state of Consciousness'. This is a complete misunderstanding of turIya. turIya equates to brahman equates to Self - it is that which is the substantive reality of the three states of waking, dream and deep sleep, which are all mithyA. (I'm sorry but you have to understand this term if you want to understand advaita because there is no equivalent concept in English!) You cannot 'experience' turIya. Whether or not you are a j~nAnI, you *are* turIya, because there is only turIya.

I am astounded you feel that enlightenment cannot be an event in the mind but can 'take place in the physiology'. Is rearrangement of the gross furniture of the body more meaningful than rearrangement of that of the mind?? If you accept that everything is Consciousness, how can a plant have more than a rock or a man more than an animal? If you don't accept that everything is Consciousness, then presumably there must be (at least) two things, in which case you do not believe in advaita anyway.

You seem to be entirely ignoring the questions that I asked in the last post. You speak of the j~nAnI seeing the oneness and the pUrNatvam (fullness), recognizing that the world is only an appearance etc. If this is true for the j~nAnI (which it is), then it has to be true also for the aj~nAnI. Does it not? It can't be true for the sage and false for little old me. So why don't I see it this way? It can only be that I have all these erroneous ideas in my mind which either *prevent* me from seeing how things are or cause me to see things *other* than how they are. These wrong ideas have to be undermined and corrected. This has to be done *by* the mind (intellect, using discrimination and reason) and it takes place *in* the mind. Ultimately, it is the mind that 'takes on the form of the undivided' with the akhaNDAkAra vRRitti (see Terms and Definitions).

You might also be interested in reading the essay from Swami Suddhananda (extract from Premananda�s book) that I have posted to the website. This discusses the idea that enlightenment means �death of the mind� (manonAsha).

Awareness vs Consciousness Part II of II

Q. I read the two definitions of mithyA you provided, and I don't see how they are immediately relevant to our discussion of whether or not enlightenment is an experience in the mind. I did not mean to suggest, that the world ceases to exist for a j~nAnI. I suggested that it just becomes much less important. It goes on in the background, like a TV playing in another part of the house, while Pure Absolute Consciousness takes centre stage, so to speak.

I have to say I am a little taken aback by your disinclination to consider viewpoints other than your own. It almost sounds like you are wrapping yourself in a cloak of infallibility, and that might come back to haunt you. I became interested in the sacred texts pertaining to j~nAnIhood over 40 years ago when I was an undergraduate, and I can tell you I have had to make drastic revisions to my thinking many times over those four decades, as my understanding, appreciation and experience deepened, and I discovered the modern j~nAnI like Ramana Maharishi, Eckhart Tolle, Nisargadatta, and Robert Adams. And I'm not done yet...it's an ongoing process. As to the mahAvAkya, as you say, these 'great sayings' come from the upaniShads and I have been familiar with them since undergraduate days. But verbal affirmations do not make a j~nAnI.

Enlightenment is not a concept or an idea. It is a complete restructuring of the human experience, and in a previous email I made a feeble attempt to suggest the drastic differences between the condition of a j~nAnI compared to the condition of the non-j~nAnI, and pointed out that a newly minted j~nAnI often requires considerable time just to assimilate the new structure of experience. As the bhagavadgItA says, it's like night and day!

You are quite correct when you say one cannot 'experience' turIya. turIya is the EXPERIENCER. turIya is what remains when the fluctuations of the mind cease, as Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras. Or you could say it is the 'experience of no experience'. Here again we get tangled up in the limitations of language. Even we ordinary people can 'experience no experience' in the 'gap', which is sometimes perceptible between the relative states of Consciousness - waking, dreaming and sleeping. Most people have had the experience of waking up in the morning and experiencing a moment of pure awareness, Consciousness without an object, perfect peace.

Then, after a split second, the mind starts up and one remembers, Oh hell, today I have go to court. Or whatever. It usually is noticed when one is under some kind of stress or deadline pressure, because then the contrast between the peace of pure awareness and the distress that one feels once the mind switches itself on is the greatest. Have you ever had an experience like that? Have you ever 'witnessed' yourself during sleep or during a dream? This is the 'experience' of turIya, (again, words fail because it is an experience of no experience). For the j~nAnI, the physiology has refined itself to the point where the pure Consciousness, or turIya, is maintained 24 hours a day, and the states of waking, dreaming and sleeping are seen to coexist, in the background, as relative states alongside the Absolute Eternal puruSha brahman Self. The maintenance of pure awareness, called turIya, is the sine qua non of enlightenment.

I am for my part astounded that you believe enlightenment to be a mental event. Yes of course everything is brahman, everything is Consciousness, but awareness needs a physical form to manifest itself. Nisargadatta says: 'What is born is Consciousness, which needs an organism to manifest itself in, and that organism is the physical body....it is Consciousness that manifests itself in individual forms and gives them apparent existence. In human beings through such manifestation arises the concept of a separate "I". In each individual, the Absolute get reflected as awareness, and thus pure awareness becomes self-awareness or Consciousness....Consciousness is the reflection of the Absolute against the surface of matter, bringing about a sense of duality. Pure awareness, the Absolute state is without beginning or end, without the need of any support other than itself. Awareness becomes Consciousness only when it has an object to reflect against. Between awareness and awareness reflected as Consciousness, there is a gap which the mind cannot cross. Reflection of the sun in a dewdrop is not the sun!' (Pointers from Nisargadatta Maharaj, edited by Ramesh S. Balsekar, pp 3,4.)

If the transformation of the non j~nAnI to the j~nAnI does not involve any transformation on the level of the physiology, then why is it that we see in every culture the fact that aspiring j~nAnIs withdraw from the world and retire to live in remote places, either in solitude or in small groups called ashrams or monasteries, where they engage in austerities and follow various disciplinary and devotional practices?

They are training their physiologies for the transformation to enlightenment, just as an athlete trains for a marathon or the Tour de France and this has been done since times immemorial. Do you think they wasting their time? If you read the biographies of the modern j~nAnIs, they often speak of the physical changes they experienced coincident with the transformation to enlightenment. In India, of course you have a vast literature on this subject, reflected as usual through the colourful prism of the Indian imagination, in the Kundalini literature. How can you deny this?

If you think that the ability to reflect pure awareness is the same in a rock, a plant, an animal, an ordinary human and a j~nAnI, then you could teach your parrot the mahAvAkya, in perfect Sanskrit, of course, and your parrot would be a j~nAnI? Perhaps our views are irreconcilable, but in my view you are denying thousands of years of tradition, and even common sense, by suggesting that enlightenment is simply a mental event and has no physiological corollaries. Do you think all sAdhanA is a hoax?

There is a metaphor which I have found helpful in understanding the relationship of the fourth state of Consciousness, turIya, to the three relative states - waking, dreaming and sleeping. Imagine you have a necklace made of wooden beads. The beads are strung together tightly so that you cannot see the string. In this analogy, each wooden bead represents one of the three relative states of Consciousness. The string on which the beads are strung is invisible because the beads are contiguous. The existence of the string may be inferred because the necklace stays together.

This is an analogy for the state of the non-j~nAnI: he experiences only waking, dreaming and sleeping, and by the fact the knows he is the same person experiencing waking, dreaming and sleeping, he infers that there is something that continues even as these states come and go. Now imagine that we put some magic chemical on the wooden beads, and make them as transparent as glass. All at once the string holding the beads becomes visible, and the continuity of the necklace now is the dominant factor. This is analagous to the revelation of turIya as the real underlying awareness, and the magic chemical used to transform the wooden beads to glass beads is analagous to meditation or other sAdhanAs used to transform the perceptive process. Minds come and go, absolute awareness always is and appears when the mental fluctuations we call 'mind' cease. That is the purpose of meditation and similar sAdhanAs.

I hope you will keep an open mind, and I respectfully suggest you check out the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This text is the best owner's manual for the human nervous system, and describes the changes necessary for the non-j~nAnI to transform himself into a j~nAnI. This text is just as essential as the upaniShads, in my view.

Here are some samples:

  • II 5: To confuse the permanent, the pure, the good and the Self with the impermanent, the impure, the bad, and that which is not the Self, is ignorance;
  • II 6: The idea, 'I am so-and-so' is the confusion of the power to see with the instrument by which one sees;
  • II 26: The way to stop suffering is to have a continual discrimination between the Self (puruSha, turIya) and the mind;
  • III 35: Human experience is like a performance in which the mind and the Self (puruSha) are not distinguished from each other. In reality, these two are completely different because the mind exists for another entity, not for its own sake; realization of that which exists for its own sake results in the knowledge of the Self (puruSha);
  • III 55: When the purity of the mind rises to equal that of the spirit, there is isolation (i.e. the Absolute Self remains all alone);
  • IV 2: For him who sees this distinction, the idea of an individual personality ceases.

And from the kenopaniShad:

Which one cannot grasp with one's mind,
by which, they say, the mind itself is grasped --
Learn that that alone is brahman
and not what they here venerate.

Just to clarify: as I explained, the idea behind the Q&A section of the site is that I offer my understanding to answer questions according to traditional advaita. This is the area of my expertise - I know very little about other systems. It is not that I don't believe that there *are* other, workable systems. There is simply no time or inclination for me to acquire knowledge of them such that I could discuss them meaningfully. So I stick to what I know!

And I am now very familiar with advaita. I know that it works and that all of its precepts stand up to reason and experience, and I am able to answer most questions that anyone may pose - so why would I want to look elsewhere?

From what you say, it would seem that you are much more eclectic. However, the consequence of your wide knowledge is that your specific understanding of advaita is incomplete. You cannot, for example, quote Patanjali (brilliant though he is) in support of arguments about turIya. The yoga system is most definitely *not* advaita. Your claims disparaging the mind and advocating physiological practices and perhaps even the pursuit of samAdhi are commensurate with yoga, not advaita. If you read/listen to traditional teachers of advaita, such as Swamis Dayananda or Chinmayananda or even go back to Gaudapada or Shankara, you will find ample support for all that I have said. There is always a great danger in quoting teachers such as Nisargadatta or Ramana because their writings are mostly transcriptions of dialogues, in which their answers were gauged to the level of understanding and needs of the specific questioner, rather than any sort of statement of 'doctrine'.

And the bottom line is that *all* systems are mithyA. If it works for you, it is fine, but then you drop it anyway as having fulfilled its function. This, also, is advaita.

Q. All I can say is that I've much enjoyed reading the words of the various j~nAnI. I find them inspiring and uplifting. I don't know a thing about categorizing them into 'systems'. On the contrary, I've been struck by the consistency of the main themes found in the words of the j~nAnI, regardless of what century they lived in or what culture they came from.

I don't understand how you can dismiss the words of Ramana or Nisargadatta because they came from dialogues with their respective students. Do not the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels and the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali Canon come from their dialogues with their respective students? I will close with a favorite quote of mine from Robert Adams. In my view, this quote is a candidate for mahAvAkya-hood. He said, �There are no mistakes. All is well.�

It is good that you read widely and find value and inspiration in what you read. So few people do. Note that I certainly did not 'dismiss' the teaching of Ramana or Nisargadatta - anyone would be mad to do so. There are wonderful passages and guidance in both. All I said is 'be careful'. You are not the person who asked the question and therefore cannot have that person's background nor necessarily appreciate the context in which the question was asked. So you *may* misunderstand the reply.

The (official) Gospels are a good example. The doctrine of Christianity is riddled with misunderstandings, compounded as the teaching has been perverted through the ages so that (I believe) what is now taught by most churches bears little resemblance to the original message of Christ. But let's not get into that discussion!

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