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' .

The mind and the I-thought

Q. The mind has an important job to do to aid our everyday survival through processing information that we are continually experiencing and using that to assess and plan our actions through the further process of reflection (thinking). To that end, the mind is as important (and as mechanical) as are the instinctive reactions of our bodies.

For us, the mind has taken on an exaggerated importance in that we tend to believe that the contents (the memories formed from our experiences) have a reality that is beyond the physical. For many, the mind has become exalted to the status of being the 'I', the real 'me'; sometimes a 'soul'. So, my point is that as necessary and important as the mind is, it has become a �self� centred and �self� maintaining tool. Therefore, any movement the mind makes in matters of beliefs, in pursuing goals in the fields of religion, spirituality or any other belief concept, its main pre-occupation is in maintaining its �self� structure through identification with the belief. Further, to maintain its �self� structure it may form a strong attachment to any concept that appears to support the sense of �I� � whether or not the belief (concept) is true or not.

This all may seem very �heady� but surely it is a simple matter of observing these natural processes, how they arise and how they continue to sustain the �I� concept? It may also help to realise that the mind and its processes (thinking) is as automatic as breathing and arises in a part of the brain. We are conditioned to think in terms of mind-body whereas it would be more helpful to talk of brain-body. Understanding the relationship between how the brain creates a �me� as opposed to �not me� would give a clearer picture of the dualistic situation we find ourselves in.

I realise we make huge investments in maintaining the �I� delusion and how these investments are skilfully maintained, it is in this sense that I refer to the security the �self� seeks through the maintenance of this belief structure. The so-called �mind� can only be clear when uncontaminated by the �I� concept, otherwise all our undertakings, our goals, whether spiritual or otherwise, will only serve the divisive �I�. Most systems (and non-systems) do not seem aware of the subtlety of the mind in respect to its �self� maintaining process.

It is the function of the ego-mind to fit the intimations we have of the non-duality of �Life� into a framework that �it� can manipulate into yet another �self�-maintaining structure. Our whole, intelligent brain-body organism is continually aware of such intimations (it cannot be otherwise); then along comes the mind and tries to understand the unknown in terms of the known.

It seems we are all aware of �intimations� (some obvious, some more subtle) arising from within ourselves and from nature, that we are not just mind and body and are not separate, isolated creatures; it may be this �feeling� that impels us to �search�. No doubt this �search� can take us into all sorts of weird and wonderful ventures � perhaps spiritual or scientific. We can never �find� the source of these �intimations�, perhaps because they are too �close� to us; they are what we are � the very basis of life and everything. The best we can ever understand is that we are not who we have been told or believe we are, and to simply acknowledge the �otherness�.

Perhaps a person following a particular path does realise these things � and perhaps it is incidental and could arise when cutting the grass or drinking tea!

A. I don�t disagree with most of what you say � and neither does advaita. In fact, if you study Ramana Maharshi, it is his �Who am I?� enquiry that is intended to root out this �I thought� and expose it for what it is, along the lines that you indicate.

However, this �I thought� arises in Consciousness. Consciousness is prior to any thought and the mind and body themselves arise within it. It is not �I, Dennis� or �I, somebody or other� who is the non-dual reality but �I, the Consciousness prior to thought�. This is where the idea of destruction of the mind or ego comes from. The literal destruction is, of course, not possible and, if it were, there would be no realization of the truth since this realization has to occur in the mind itself. But, the �real I� being prior to mind, the notional destruction of the mind, is the recognition that the mind and its �I thought� are not who I really am. If you want to read some excellent material on this very topic, look at the book that I have reviewed � Arunachala Shiva: Premananda addresses this, there.

This is very subtle stuff for most people and requires much preliminary teaching to undermine the many pre-existing misconceptions and prepare the mind for the final understanding. So it *may* occur spontaneously while drinking a cup of tea� but it is most unlikely to do so!

The content of enlightenment

Q. I've been mulling over a question about the content of enlightenment for a couple of months, and I was wondering if you would mind giving me some guidance. As I see it, there are three core teachings of advaita:

  1. I am not an object; I am awareness/presence/Consciousness ('you do not exist')
  2. There is only one awareness/presence/Consciousness ('only one Consciousness')
  3. All that exists is awareness/presence/Consciousness ('life is a dream')

I realize that most advaita teachers would probably object to summarizing their teachings as numbered propositions and I realize that (3) implies (1) and (2), but this sort of structure helps to make my question clear.

As I see it, advaita teachers provide lots of pointers for proposition (1) - everything from introspective exercises, to a priori arguments that the subject can never be an object, to thought experiments about having no control over one's thoughts. However, in all of the advaita teachings I've looked at (and I've read a number of books), I haven't seen many pointers for (2) and (3).

Is the idea that the truth of (2) and (3) (or just (3) really, if it implies (2)) can be grasped only when the truth of (1) has been realized? Do the truth of (2) and (3) become apparent when, and only when, the false assumption of an independent, substantial self has been disposed of? If that's the case, then I'm still confused. How could the realization that I am only presence/awareness demonstrate that everyone else and everything else is the same presence/awareness? The realization of (1) doesn't seem (to me at least) to have any necessary connection with (2) and (3). Even if the self is an illusion, why does the world and everyone's awareness of it suddenly collapse into unity (or rather why would I suddenly understand that they have all been part of an underlying unity all along)?

I hope all of this makes sense. It's something I've been puzzling about for a while, and I was hoping you might be able to set me on the right track. Thanks again for your web site and all of the valuable content that you've made available. It's much appreciated!

A. The traditional teaching of advaita begins by negating everything (neti, neti). I am not the objects in the world, not the body or mind. This is perhaps the first stage. This �neti, neti� teaching comes from the bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad. Yet I cannot negate my own existence. (I don�t understand your statement, 'You do not exist.')

→ Q. From my experience, there are two notions about the self that most contemporary teachers of advaita try to get across, one negative and one positive. The negative one is that the self is not an object ('not an independent, substantial thing', as it's often put). The positive one is that the self is simply awareness, cognizing emptiness, capacity for the world, etc. From what I understand, it is this positive notion of the self that cannot be denied, according to Advaitins. Incidentally, I think the fact that most advaita teachers do not tease apart these two notions leads to much gratuitous confusion. For example, Tony Parsons often remarks in interviews 'I do not exist', while Bob Adamson generally begins in the classical manner by showing students that they cannot doubt that they exist (!?).

A. The second stage could be to realize that all of the supposedly separate objects in the world are only name and form. That there is really only �one thing�. This is the vAchArambhaNa teaching from the chhAndogya upaniShad, where it is also said that sarvaM khalvidaM brahma � all this is brahman. (I don�t understand why you equate this with 'life is a dream'.)

→ Q. Well, I think the view is often expressed as 'life is only a dream'. For example, Randall Friend and David Carse emphasize this. By the way, I think that the view that all is brahman is (3) rather than (2) in my numbered propositions. From my experience, (2) is found in all mystical traditions, whereas, from what I can see, (3) is found only in Eastern traditions. For example, the realization that there is only one Consciousness would be complete enlightenment for someone like Meister Eckhart, while in advaita and, more generally in Vedanta and some traditions of Buddhism, there is also the realization that everything in the external world is simply a form/name of Consiousness.

A. The third stage might be the recognition that �I am That�. The mahAvAkya �tat tvam asi� (Thou art That) is covered in the vivekachUDAmaNi (I recommend the version by Swami Dayananda) or vAkya vRRitti (you can download Swami Chinmayanda�s translation off the internet but there is no commentary).

→ Q. It seems to me that 'Thou art that' is a particularization of the general claim that 'All is brahman'. If all is Consciousness, then, of course, you and that chair over there have the same being, viz. brahman. Thank you for the pointers to Shankara's works. I haven't read anything by him, and maybe now is the time to start!

A. Traditional advaita does not number things in this way as you have done above. A given teacher will probably have a preferred sequence for taking texts, probably beginning with something like tattva bodha, which introduces lots of terms used in other scriptures and ending with mANDUkya upaniShad and gauDapAda-s kArikA-s and maybe Shankara�s bhAShya on the brahma sutra-s because these require considerable background understanding first. The mANDUkya upaniShad and gauDapAda-s kArikA-s is actually probably the best for your specific concern. The second chapter is totally concerned with the mithyAtva or non-reality of the world and the third with non-duality itself. I have all of the versions of this that I have been able to obtain, since my next book is on this topic and my recommendation for the most readable-informative-accurate book would be Swami Chinmayananda�s version, which is relatively easy to find. If you can get them, though, the talks by Swami Paramarthananda are absolutely brilliant and will clarify all your misunderstandings. But there are 80 hours of these and you can only get them from India, unfortunately.

→ Q. Thanks a lot for the pointers to these sources as well. I will definitely check out the mANDUkya upaniShad and Gaupada's commentary, another book I had been meaning to read.

A. Different people have difficulty with different aspects of what you have been describing. What is quickly obvious to one will be a sticking point for another. The bhAga tyAga lakShaNa story shows how a sudden realization can bring about the �collapse� of all our previous suppositions.

One thought that occurred while reading your reply is that the confusion between �I do not exist� and �I cannot doubt that I exist� is specifically attacked by Ramana�s �Who am I?� enquiry. Here is part of an answer I recently gave to another questioner (slightly amended):

Effectively he is asking us to differentiate between who-I-really am and the �I thought�. This �I thought� arises in Consciousness. Consciousness is prior to any thought and the mind and body themselves arise within it. It is not �I, Dennis� or �I, somebody or other� who is the non-dual reality but �I, the Consciousness prior to thought�. This is where the idea of destruction of the mind or ego comes from. The literal destruction is, of course, not possible and, if it were, there would be no realization of the truth since this realization has to occur in the mind itself. But, the �real I� being prior to mind, the notional destruction of the mind is the recognition that the mind and its �I thought� are not who I really am.

You will probably enjoy the mANDUkya upaniShad and Gaudapada. One of the things that is brought out in the second chapter is that waking and dream have the same ontological status. In fact, Shankara actually says at one point that the world is not absolutely real �because we perceive it�! You should definitely read Shankara � obviously there is no one more important in the advaita tradition. But you should note that he is not the most readable of writers, even in a good translation. You do need someone who fully understands the points that are being made so that they can be paraphrased. If you are rich, you cannot do better than the six-volume Shankara Source Book from Shanti Sadan.

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