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: How is it that if everything simply happens, if there is no mind and, accepting that in reality there is no person as such, that a person’s attitude to life can radically change their perspective of, appreciation of, and attitude towards that life?

A: It is just a cause and effect relationship. Those thoughts that are particularly attractive (i.e. with which there is identification) exert correspondingly more influence on everything else. It automatically follows that some things will be appreciated (and appear to be chosen) and others will not. Positive feedback reinforces particular ideas; negative feedback loosens their hold.

Q: I cannot disagree with your answer as this is how it appears to be but it seems to fly in the face of Advaitic teaching which says; there is no individual and therefore no-one to have thoughts and, there is no doer, everything simply happens.  How come something that doesn’t exist influences something else which doesn’t exist either?  Aside from that it does appear that it is not just that which we find attractive that is drawn to us but that also that which we fear and this seems to imply an individual volitional mind – that which Advaita denies.  Dr. Amit Goswami, who is a non-dual physicist, posits that the brain [individual mind ?] perceives a potential and the mind [universal mind ?] collapses the wave function into particle form and manifestation.  Advaita would also contend that cause and effect only appears to be the case. No?

A: You are confusing reality and appearance. If you ask about thoughts and influence, I assume you want an ‘appearance’ answer. At the level of the phenomenal, all proceeds according to cause and effect (or the laws of Ishvara if you prefer!). Also, there appears to be free will (although I have argued - and believe it to be the case – that the evidence is that there is no free will even at the level of appearance). Again, at the level of appearance, there are clearly individuals (jIva-s) and they are affected by all of the influences (including their own apparent volition) according to the cause-effect laws.

It is only in reality that there are no individuals, laws, influences etc.

As I have noted before, you can blind most people with quantum physics since so few understand it. Science is intrinsically objective and there are no objects in reality.

Q: Are you saying that those who are awakened live in Reality – not ‘down here’?  You see, I cannot get past the idea that awakening to Reality is nothing more than viewing this world from the perspective of That rather than from a perceived individual viewpoint; i.e. free from prejudice, conditioned response and misconceptions [without concepts of how things should be].  After all both the apparent individual and the enlightened can only function through the perceptions taken in by the senses should they wish to continue existing. Again: after all “This is It”.

I cannot agree with you over science and quantum.  The reason science is in disarray over the very small is because it is bordering on the subjective and cannot be rationally understood, therefore it does not fit in with the ‘scientific’ view.  Also there are too many quantum physicists who have radically changed their view on ‘how it works’ to dismiss the connection out of hand.

A: ‘Awakening’ doesn’t change the appearance. Contrary to what some seem to claim, the world does not effectively disappear. Everything is seen as before; the difference is that it is now known not to be separate. All the ‘people’ are still there, living out their apparent lives, still acting as though there were free will, including the body-mind in which ‘awakening’ has occurred. So yes, what you say is true – the world is now viewed “from the perspective of That rather than from a perceived individual viewpoint”. However, the body-mind is not necessarily free from prejudice. Conditioned responses will still take place, all according to the same laws as before. But it is now known that it is not ‘me’ who is doing any of this. As you say, functioning takes place through the body-mind by virtue of the Consciousness that enlivens it.

On the question of science, I don’t dispute that the study of quantum behaviour and/or the mathematics involved may cause scientists to re-examine the nature of reality and perhaps even bring them to consider non-dualism, but I still maintain that all science is necessarily objective, therefore dualistic and consequently irrelevant when considering the nature of reality.

Q: Thanks for that.  Really clear. Hence, there is no need worrying about our little inconsistencies or what may be conceived of as imperfections.  They are not a barrier to awakening and neither do I own them, they are a part of the play.

A: Everything is perfect!

Q: Pure Land Buddhism teaches, "The lotus blooms in fire" and, "Bits of dung are transformed into gold." These aphorisms pointing to the apparent paradox of the relative, the conditioned, the illusion of separation, and that which is beyond the beyond, all here and now, in and out of time and space. The unsublated Paradox.

Advaitists seem to agree with the more realized and radical of Zen masters in that nirvana is samsara (& visa-versa), with the Buddha who would call these descriptive terms mere words with no basis in Reality, and with Nagarjuna that Is is not and Not is, but then Not is also not and Is is.   

Thus comprehended, is suffering, at any level, in any sense of word or action, real or unreal, ultimate or illusory, necessary?  Is there any point, pointless or provisional, to preservation of illusory life, the alleviation of illusion?  Try?  Teach?  Care?

No problem.  Or Is There?  Thanks.

A: Your question is posed in a very intellectual way. Whilst the mind is the tool that we use to try to highlight the source of ignorance, and thereby undermine it, it is also in a very real sense the cause of all of our problems. So it is a constant balancing act. Another problem is that my knowledge of Buddhism (in any variant) is virtually zero.

So, bearing this in mind, the first point I would make is that traditional Advaita initially differentiates between appearance (vyavahAra) and reality (paramArtha), because we start off with the belief that the world and the separate self are real. The first task is therefore to undermine that belief and show us that we are not the body, mind etc. Only after the final stage of dis-identification has been undergone can this differentiation be taken back and can it be admitted (and realised to be true) that the world is in fact not other than who we really are. This I understand to be what you mean by ‘nirvana is saMsAra’.

You then ask whether suffering is necessary or whether there is any point to the alleviation of suffering. The phrasing implies that the full consequences of the above have not been taken on board. To whom or for what could anything be ‘necessary’? For whom could anything have a ‘point’? Suffering is an intrinsic part of vyavahAra so will (appear to) continue for all of those jIva-s still mired in mAyA. Anything that appears to be done to alleviate this would itself still be a part of the dream and would inevitably only be temporary anyway. The only way out of it is through the realisation that it is only an appearance – name and form imposed upon the non-dual reality, which is always perfect and complete and totally unaffected by the seeming change, whether it be deemed (by the jIva) to be good or evil.

Ultimately, nothing in the appearance matters because it is only an appearance. Whilst still apparently trapped in the appearance, it matters very much and the way out is through removal of the ignorance. This can only be achieved through knowledge, which can arrive from scriptures or from a guru or preferably both. But nothing can be done (because there is no one to do it) so we rely on the operation of cause and effect. E.g. reading this, someone might be caused to read more, track down a teacher etc. The teacher, similarly, teaches because teaching is part of the nature of that body-mind in the (apparent) creation.

Q:     Thank you for your most helpful and prompt response.  As you point out, the mind is indeed the problem, assuming there is one.

I am a spiritual teacher and have considered teaching, a "calling."  In this calling is also heard the call of the ego, most definitely. One wants to help, as you have so ably, but it is clear that wanting to help, perhaps especially that desire, is problematic.

Even in the call of the quiet, there is the still small ego.  Even "doing nothing at all" is suspect.  In this passing evening, given the implicit impurity of altruistic prompting, there seems nothing but to follow the Invisible wherever It may lead, in spite of the potential emptiness of even This.  Perhaps teaching and learning, humbled always in the obscure awareness of Reality, is the form of the infinite for now.  Perfectly imperfect.

A: I feel that there is free-will issue here as well. What ‘comes up’ for the person is whatever has been conditioned – genes, education, upbringing etc. There is no choice here. The action that is taken is then, similarly, the result of the (automatic) mental discussion and discrimination - again no free-will. After the event, there is the tendency (again automatic) for the thought to arise: ‘I decided this’, ‘I did that’. This thought is effectively the ‘ego’.

So, these thoughts will continue to arise for the ‘realized man’ since they have nothing to do with who-we-really-are. To this extent, the ‘realized man’ still has ego-thoughts but, now, there is no identification with them. The crucial difference is that it is now known that all this is simply a part of the appearance. The rope-snake metaphor is useful here. Once it is known that the snake is really a rope, it is no longer possible to be deceived.

Accordingly, if one’s natural role is that of a teacher, the related thoughts and actions will continue as before, including the thoughts ‘I want to teach’, ‘I enjoy teaching others’ and so on. No problem. Once the ego has been seen through, it will no longer be possible to be deceived by those thoughts into believing that anyone is doing or enjoying anything. There is nothing ‘empty’ or ‘imperfect’ – reality is always perfect and complete.

Who would you see if there was one person who embodies these principles in the world today? Have met some UK teachers Nathan Gill and Tony Parsons and am not sure about their depth of understanding. Great guys to spend time with.   Will you be holding any seminars? If you are please let me know.

A: There are many teachers out there and it is really a question if who most resonates with your own particular nature. To my mind, the best living teacher is Swami Dayananda – crystal clear explanations of the most difficult topic and a humorous style. Of the modern writers, I must say that I am most impressed by David Carse’s ‘Perfect Brilliant Stillness’. He does not teach but what he says comes across in such a way as to leave one in no doubt of his authenticity. He also has some very original metaphors. His book is long, though, and takes a while to ‘get going’. I guess I would probably have to recommend Sailor Bob as one of the best modern satsang teachers.

I do not intend ever to hold satsangs. I would like to hold something like a year-long course on Advaita, one lesson per week, but this does not seem very likely. Unfortunately, I do not live within easy access of London, which is probably the only location where this might be viable. A possible compromise might be two-week residential. The aim of any such course, though, would be to teach Advaita as a philosophy rather than in any sense help ‘people’ attain ‘enlightenment’! If such a thing is ever planned, it will be advertised on the website.

Q: In CONSCIOUS IMMORTALITY: CONVERSATIONS WITH RAMANA MAHARSHI (recorded by Paul Brunton and Munagala Venkataramiah), the sage was asked: “There is a religion called Christian Science which has a similar doctrine [to the concepts voiced by Shri Ramana]. Is it correct?” Shri Ramana’s reply was: “Yes, but do not concern yourself with results.” (p. 120). What are your thoughts, Dennis, on the similarities (and/or differences) between the Advaita and Christian Science? In the context of his answer to the query, what do you think Shri Ramana meant by saying, “do not concern yourself with results?”

A: My immediate reaction is to comment that I know nothing about Christian Science and to suggest that, if you tell me what you understand to be the beliefs of Christian Science, I will then tell you whether these are the same as Advaita.

As regards your final query, however, I do not think it matters whether or not there are similarities. The key point about all religions (allowing the literal meaning of this word, i.e. ‘joining back’ to the truth) is that they begin with ‘me’ wanting something, whether this is union with God, a meaning to life or simply ‘happiness’. This is our starting point, as it were. All valid religions, however, must bring about the realisation that there is no ‘me’, so that the original intent is lost and the recognition dawns that I am already that in which all of this seeming world arises. I.e. the end result that I thought I wanted is dissolved and known to have been completely misconceived. Hence, to set out on an apparent path with the attitude ‘do not concern yourself with results’ could help speed up the final understanding.

A very quick look at ‘Christian Science’ at Wikipedia throws up the phrases “spiritual healing” and “humanity's sense of separation from God.” This implies that it has little in common with Advaita in its final sense. Advaita does cater for all levels of seeker and provides initial stages of teaching that are explicitly dualistic. In the end, however, there is only the non-dual truth expressed by the mahAvAkya-s; there is no separate humanity and healing bodies or minds is all part of the dream.

As I say, the implication from your question is that you know rather more about Christian Science than this! So please do ask a question about a specific belief or teaching if you want.

Q: I can see parallels between Christian Science and Advaita with particular reference to the concept of the subjective nature of reality. Where they seem to differ (I think?) is the emphasis Eddy placed on the consequences of adhering (individually and collectively) to the common sense notion that reality is what it seems to be, at least as interpreted to us through our senses. The consequence is the world we have, a world seemingly made up of birth and death and predation and disease. She believed that Jesus Christ was like everyone else, except he understood at a very deep level that we are ideas in the one Mind and in some way (I don’t quite grasp) this understanding enabled him to manipulate the contents of the dream in such a way that people (who continued to be in the illusion that the world was what it seemed to be as interpreted through the senses) thought he was performing miracles. Eddy said we could all come to the same understanding Jesus did and do the things he did (or seemed to do) by awakening to the fact that all is consciousness and that consciousness is individual.

As a concrete example of her concept, Eddy once said that three people could be sitting in a room and that an interloper could enter the room and shoot one of the people with a gun; now because all reality is consciousness, the outcome could be that the person shot would believe that he recovers and goes on to live his “life” while the other two people entertain the concept that their friend died and they would go about burying him (but they in fact would be burying their “concept” of their friend (just as the one shot would live out his concept of his life). In the area of health (her principle writing was called Science and Health), Eddy said we don’t (for example) get cancer (there is no cancer and never was) but we succumb to the concept of cancer; when we understand the conceptual nature of all reality, we can change our concepts (really, give up the false concept of an objective basis of reality) and enjoy the “concept” of perfect health and harmony, a concept grounded in the Truth that there is only the one perfect Mind and its ideas.

It is on this last point above that I think Ramana might have been addressing when he said that Christian Science was the same as what he taught, except “do not concern yourself with results.” In fact, Christian Scientists, though they do speak of the dream like nature of reality, very often do look toward the results of manipulating that dream (which might –and I am speculating here—just keep them tethered to the dream, tethered to the very thing they wish to have dissolved into “its native nothingness” (a phrase Eddy often used)….and perhaps this is the point Ramana may have been making in his observation though, of course, I don't know).

A: There is one particular problem and that is your use of the word ‘reality’. In Advaita, this word is reserved for the non-dual reality – called paramArtha in Sanskrit. You are using it to refer to worldly things, which are strictly speaking only an appearance – name and form imposed upon that non-dual reality. Sanskrit uses the term vyavahAra for this. Yes – this is also ultimately reality, too, but what we see is only the appearance. The nature of reality is not accessible to the senses or mind. Our subjective view of the world is really only comparable to a dream and not to reality. It is certainly said that yogis may develop what appear to be supernatural powers (called siddhi-s), which might involve such things as healing or levitation and so on. As you say, these are really no more that manipulation of the dream. They are also counter-productive, if anything, as regards self-realization, since they are taking one away from the truth rather than towards it.

The notion of multiple parallel appearances is an interesting one (for a science fiction story, perhaps!) but I know of no corresponding teaching in Advaita. Whatever appears is really of no interest, having no greater reality than a dream does to the waker. The same applies to concepts of state of health. Concepts exist in the mind and health exists in the body. Since we are neither of these, what is the interest?

There are many non-dual teachings and any might help in removing the ignorance that obscures the truth. Many teachers (of all traditions, I suspect) have warned against the potential confusion to be cause by attempting to derive guidance from more than one, or even from more than one teacher. The idea is that personal contact with a guru can enable teaching to be directed to your particular problems, something that cannot easily be achieved by indirect teaching.

dvaita is able to cater for all levels of seeker and has many ‘paths’. There is really no need to look elsewhere if you have already found that it suits your mentality.

Q: I wanted to know if there are any schools/monsteries where one can adopt a monastic life in the UK or India under the guidance of a teacher?

A: This is not really a question about Advaita philosophy and I’m afraid I do not have any knowledge about these. I am fairly certain there are no Advaita-based organisations in the UK that offer permanent retreats. There are probably a number of Buddhist ones and no doubt some Christian ones but again I do not have any info rmation. There are certain to be many retreats in India however and my web page may give you some pointers. There are probably some in the US , too.

However, I would ask what your motives might be for such an undertaking and offer a couple of observations. Firstly, you will not escape from the mind by adopting a monastic lifestyle. In fact, without the everyday distractions of the world, the dominion of thoughts may actually be worse. Secondly, if you are intent on such a course of action, I would recommend that you find a teacher first rather than expect that whoever happens to be teaching at a conveniently positioned ashram will have a teaching style suited to your own particular nature. It would be a good idea to attend talks etc. for some time as a visitor before committing oneself. And remember that, ultimately, the monastic life is just as illusory as the hedonistic one!

Q: I am working my way through your book and last week got to a section where you talk about us not having the sonar senses of bats or the ability to see in ultraviolet etc.  You then talk about sensory perception being a conversion of electromagnetic stimuli. The more I thought about that, that in fact the whole of bodily experience is just electromagnetic impulses, indeed that thought is really just the same, the more I began to lose touch with what the body/mind set up is. In fact, it began to seem to me that it is little more than a very complex piece of electronic circuitry and when I realised that, I had the impression of my whole identity dissolving....  very unsettling but also strangely reassuring - if I don't exist and neither does anyone else, then nothing matters.   

I wanted to ask you first whether I am understanding what you said and secondly, how do we know that the notion of anything above and beyond this complex circuitry, i.e. the Self, isn’t just another construct of mind.

A: All of the stuff in the book about bats etc. was background to explaining how western philosophers had effectively reached similar conclusions to those of Advaita. It wasn’t really intended as any sort of prakriyA (teaching method). But you are right. Atmananda Krishna Menon uses this approach to bring one to the realisation that all of this (matter, thoughts, feeling etc) simply arises in Consciousness and is simply witnessed. Since ‘I’ am observing it, I cannot be it. You can download the ‘Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Sri Atmananda’. This is a tremendous book and it is very well indexed so you can easily look up what he has to say on particular topics.

I have a couple of new books coming out early next year. The first of these is aimed at someone who knows absolutely nothing about Advaita; who simply wants to find some sort of meaning and purpose to their life. It is called ‘How to Meet Yourself (and find true happiness)’. This uses all of the latest findings from sociology and psychology to analyse what we mean by happiness and then shifts into a gentle deconstruction of our self-image along the lines you are indicating. And yes, it does conclude that ‘nothing matters’.

The second is an advanced book on Advaita with around 500 extracts from over 350 sources, ancient and modern illustrating the ways in which the philosophy leads to an understanding of our true nature. (It is called ‘Back to the Truth: 5000 years of Advaita’.) This addresses your more difficult second question. One obvious way of thinking about it is to consider the three states of Consciousness. You enter the deep-sleep state every night and, in it, there is no mind present. Do you worry that who-you-really-are will disappear when you go to sleep or do you actually look forward to it and feel great resentment if you are kept from it? Of course, ‘you’ are still present in deep sleep, despite the absence of mind. To come back to the witness concept, ‘you’ can see the mind and thoughts so cannot be it. But, yes, you are ultimately right – the ‘witness’ concept of Self has to go eventually too. In the final analysis, all of this is part of the manifest appearance and the true non-dual reality is transcendent. (But this idea is actually quite difficult to grasp and is only for the ‘advanced’!)


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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012