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. Having explored some of the many topics and related commentaries posed on the advaita.org.uk website, I was reminded of a time years ago when I explored in total the writings and concepts of the Theosophical Society. The information put forth by this group, and its founder Madame Blavatsky, is so exhaustively complex that I now am now amazed that such time and effort on my part was put into this exploration. The arguments and differing of opinions between the members themselves were very complex, sometimes bordering on idiocy. Theosophy did, however, introduce me to the concept of an earth-bound guru.

This study was undertaken after thirty or so years of exploring, exclusively, Judeo-Christian writings from a vast number of authors, so-called authorities, and of course the Bible. In fact, it was this Christian exploration and experience which led me to Theosophy, once Christ's teachings, after all those years of study, began to awaken me to a deeper enquiry of What Is.

The Theosophical tenets, voluminous as they are, somehow led me to the investigation of mysticism, Eastern religions, and all things associated with such. Many hours per day over several years were spent in brain-wracking attempts to understand these so-called mystical writings. The desire for enlightenment was overwhelming. Seeing retrospectively, I suppose I was then ready for a real-life guru; one who could and would sit in proxy for Christ Jesus. Surprisingly, and accidentally, I one day found myself in touch with such - an American, who while in India was initiated by, sat under, died and was realized via the pointing of a Hindu guru being of Indian-national renown and lineage. Post-realization, she was initiated as a swami and soon was instructed to leave India in order to carry on the traditions of the lineage in the United States.

Swami-G had not been back too long when I stumbled upon her (how that happened is a great story itself - one for another time and a different venue) and made contact. Swami-G, after some exploration of her own, extended to me an invitation to investigate her perspectives and teachings. I was glad to do so, and soon was initiated as a sAdhaka [seeker/worshipper]. I had very little idea at the time of what it was I was getting myself into. Deconstruction of the ego can be, as you know, a very trying and painful process.

With all grateful regard, respect, and deepest reverence for Christ, Madame Blavatsky, and Swami-G for what was given, the fact is now that the fellow to whom knowledge, understanding, and grace was imparted is no more. But what does remain is the remembering of the lengthy years (some say life-times) of a process, itself made up of confusion, pain, tears, and the pride of what some call spiritual growth. I was informed, without the mincing of words, that I was ignorance in motion regardless of my sincerety. Mr. Waite, is there really such a thing as ignorance? Most answer in the affirmative - do they not? But, to hold that Consciousness is either ignorant or awakened is a dualistic viewpoint. Is it not?

The remembering of a painful process, years of ardorous study, and prescribed meditative practices, has resulted in a question naturally arising: that is whether or not the required study, absorption, and assimilation of all the Christian dogma, Theosophical speculation, and Hindu religious tradition were, in the end, something needed and necessary to effect an awakening? Though I am aware of argument both pro and con concerning this, I hold the position that perhaps these things were neither necessary nor not necessary. At present, the question appears comical. Who could truely know? But, to continue ...

Advaita is Advaita regardless of opinion, teaching, methodology, avowed sanctity, viewpoint, perception, belief, ignorance, wowing intellectual book, lecture, or beautiful essay. Who among us would argue this? And who could argue that all of the above adjectives and descriptors are not also Advaita? What else is there? What? Can anyone say that the concepts of good and evil, or right and wrong, things that are purely dual in nature, are not Advaita? If so, how? The concepts themselves are matters arising in Consciousness and thereby Advaita. What Is Is, and It has been suggested that What Is is not two.

Does one need religiosity, dogma, ritual, rite, ancient text and language, initiation, so on and so forth, etc., etc., etc., in order to perceive the Self - to grasp the mystery of One? Again, I think not. And though I admire ancient tradition, I do not recommend that one shave their head and wear orange clothing in order to prove devotion to a purely symbolic religious deity, be it Christ or Krishna. Regardless of what I think (what thinks), the point is that what anybody thinks, awakened or not, is at bottom line irrelevant ... period.

Consciousness Is, and Is what it Is. What I think holds no more or less weight than what you or the guy on the street thinks. I don't yet know what I don't know because the possibilities are innumerable and inexhaustable - this is the mystery. We understand that the universe boasts both order and chaos, but does this fact prove purpose or meaning? What is the purpose? What is the meaning? Does the Knower of all ascribe some biased meaning and purpose to What Is? Ego certainly does and is told that it is ignorant. Geeze! Ego would not exist were it not for Consciousness would it? And if egoic self, in ignorance, ascribes some ignorant meaning and purpose to life and existence, how is it operating any differently than an Awakened One who does the same? I may be free mentally, but my old body still hurts. Vanity of vanity, all is vanity. The cosmic joke. But, enough rambling.

So, my question is this: if Consciousness is One, and if All that Is Is Consciousness arising as it naturally does, where then is room for differing opinion or argument? What difference does it make if Traditional Advaita, Neo-Advaita, Pseudo-Advaita, Traditional Path, or Direct Path are spoken for or against? Is it important? The word is meaningless when seen through a mystical eye. What Is Is. All arising, be it mental or material, can be said to be nothing, yet not not-nothing. It is both mysterious and comical at the same time. Volumes of writings, centuries of tradition and teaching, and all, in the end, without purpose or meaning. It just Is What It Is. Do you not agree? Are we having fun yet? Mr. Waite, in your opinion, is there, in truth, a purpose and meaning for Advaita? If you should believe that there is, then it is only 'right' that the Traditionalists and the Neo continue the debate. Is it not?

A. What you are asking merits a long discussion. I can see that you have put considerable thought into your question. Unfortunately, there are rather a lot of demands upon my time at present so that I cannot really embark upon this. So my answer will have to be brief.

Reality is non-dual in spite of the appearance of duality. Just as the sun still appears to rise and set, despite your knowing that this appearance is caused by the earth�s rotation. To the ignorant, this appearance is the reality. Self-knowledge removes the ignorance, not the appearance.

As to the ontological status of ignorance itself, Shankara says, 'We agree that the Absolute is not the author of Ignorance and that it is not deluded by it either. Even so, there is nothing other than the Absolute which is the author of Ignorance, and no other conscious being apart from the Absolute that is deluded by it.' (From bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad bhAShya (I.iv.10)). Basically, everything is brahman, including so-called ignorance! This is one of the inevitable paradoxes that you run into when trying to talk about the indescribable. The objector in the bRRihadAraNyaka upaniShad bhAShya goes on to say that, 'In that case the scriptural instruction is useless.' Shankara replies: 'Quite so, let it be, when the truth has been known.' And he points out that we can actually see for ourselves that the knowledge imparted by the scriptures removes ignorance. So that to deny it would be contradicting your own experience.

So, is all this teaching necessary? Here is a section from the new edition of Book of One due out April 2010:

'So was all the effort really necessary, when we always have been the non-dual Self? The Neo-Advaitins insist that no effort is required.

'However, Swami Paramarthananda also tells another story which may help to remove any doubts. It is an extension of the story mentioned much earlier about the lady who is looking everywhere for her necklace but then realizes that it has been around her neck all the time. This version has the lady discovering her loss after returning from visiting a friend, to whom she had been showing the necklace. She realizes that she must have left it there and runs out into the street and all the way back to her friend�s house only to have the friend point out that the necklace was around her neck the whole time. The question he now asks is: was it necessary that the lady make the effort of going round to her friend in order to find the necklace?

'Clearly she already had the necklace but, equally clearly, she did not know that she had it. And this is the key point of the metaphor. We already are free but we do not know it. The effort of sAdhana and j~nAna yoga is to acquire the knowledge that will remove the notion that we are bound.

'Enlightenment is of the mind, the Self-knowledge that destroys the self-ignorance takes place in the mind. There is no frustration at all when Advaita is taught correctly. On the contrary, it is a joyful process in which aspects that caused confusion are replaced by clarity. It is also the person that seeks enlightenment and the person that finds it, even though the �finding� also includes the realization that there never was a "person" in reality.'

Consciousness and the Brain

This Q&A is taken from the latest issue of akhaNDAkAra.
Email Paula to subscribe to the free quarterly E-journal.

[Please differentiate �Consciousness�, with a capital �C� from �consciousness�; and �Self�, with a capital �S�, from �self�. The words with capital letters refer to brahman/Atman and with lower case to the individual person. Since the chArvAka does not believe in brahman, he will never talk about Consciousness with a capital �C�! (N.B. At the beginning of sentences, the reader will have to exercise viveka!) E.g. Humans exhibit consciousness only by virtue of Consciousness.]

Q. I enjoyed the most recent issue of akhaNDAkAra, and I have a few questions/comments about the section 'Consciousness' is the subject and cannot be investigated objectively�. I've taken the position of Devil's Advocate here. Any counter arguments or pointers you can offer would be greatly appreciated!

You Say: 'The idea that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter is not, it may surprise the reader, an invention of modern science. This same view was held by the chArvAka-s (a materialist philosophy) in the time of Shankara (around 8th century AD) and Shankara rejects their position in his commentary on the Brahmasutra (III.iii.54). He says that consciousness must be distinct from the body since it does not exist in a dead body, whereas all of the other attributes persist (for a time, at least!). Furthermore, we can perceive other attributes, such as form and color of the body but we cannot see consciousness. Nor can we see its non-existence (e.g. it might transfer to another body at death). So, if it does not consist of material elements, what else is there (since materialists deny that there is anything else)?'

I think these are all bad arguments, because they assume that consciousness is a low-level feature of matter. If you assume that consciousness is analogous to digestion, for example, then these arguments do not go through. Digestion is uncontroversially an epiphenomenon of certain biological organisms. However, digestion does not exist in a dead body, and it cannot be directly perceived. We can observe the intake of food, the initial breakdown of the food by bile, the removal of essential nutrients in the small intestine, and the excretion of waste. However, digestion itself cannot be directly observed, and it could be argued that consciousness is perfectly parallel. We can observe the behavioral manifestations of being conscious, of gaining consciousness, and of losing consciousness. We can also observe correlations between states and structures of the brain and the content, presence, and absence of consciousness.

Of course, the Advaitin will object that only relative consciousness is gained or lost in these cases, that there is a principle of consciousness that underlies the relative states of being awake, dreaming, and deep sleep. However, this assumes the very point at issue, viz. whether consciousness is an epiphenomenon of the brain or it is something outside of space/time. I'm not sure I see anywhere in the Advaita tradition an independent argument for the claim that consciousness is a basic, metaphysical feature.

You go on to say: 'Finally, Shankara points out that matter is an object of perception. If consciousness is only matter, then we have the contradictory state of affairs that consciousness is 'acting on itself'. This, he says, cannot happen. For fire, though possessing heat, does not burn itself, nor does an actor (or acrobat), trained though he be, ride on his own shoulder. And it cannot be that consciousness which is an attribute of the elements and their derivatives, (and hence is one with them), will perceive those elements, etc. Hence just as the existence of this perception of the elements and their derivatives is admitted, so also must its separateness from them be admitted.'

I don't follow this argument. The claim that consciousness is 'only matter' is stronger than the claim that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter, I think. The first claim implies that consciousness can be identified with physical structures of the brain, for example, whereas the latter claim only entails causal relations between consciousness and the brain. If consciousness is the product of matter, why can't it act on matter? Digestion, again, is clearly the product of matter, and it acts on matter.

And you say: 'Moreover, though perception takes place when light and other accessories are present, but not when they are absent, it does not follow that from this that perception is an attribute of the light, etc. That being the case, it does not follow that consciousness should be an attribute of the body just because it occurs where the body is present and does not occur where the body is absent.'

The example of perception and light shows, I think, that light is a necessary condition for perception. Perception is not an 'attribute' of light, because light is not a sufficient condition for perception - a suitable perceptual apparatus like that of the human visual system is required. Again, I think the analogy with digestion is instructive. Digestion requires a complex (though relatively easily satisfied on Earth) set of conditions, but it is still, for all that, an epiphenomenon of the body.

Finally, you say: 'One other point in respect of science's idea that consciousness arises in the brain is that this would explain nothing. Conversely, Advaita's explanation that everything arises in Consciousness explains everything.'

I don't see this at all. The claim that all there is is Consciousness has to confront two enormous explanatory challenges: the coherence/persistence of our perceptions and the cosmology of science. As for the first challenge, nobody will deny that there is an extraordinary coordination between various perceptions, between those of different agents, between those of the same agent at different times, and between different perceptions of the same agent at the same time. Mary can tell me about a new statue in the park, and I can go there and appreciate it for myself. I can return to my bedroom each night, and see that that the bed, the nightstand, the floor lamp, and the dresser have the same appearance and configuration as they did on previous nights. I see, hear, and pet the barking dog, and these various perceptions are resolved into a single, coherent experience of the dog. How are these familiar occurrences possible if there is not a world of independent, existing things, a world that has some sort of intersubjective reality that is more substantial than fleeting forms of awareness?

As I see it, Advaitins try to defuse this sort of objection by permitting only an appeal to 'direct experience'. It's true that external objects are not part of my 'direct experience'. As far as my own experience goes, there are only perceptions, feelings, and thoughts. But can't one reasonably infer the existence of external objects from one's own direct experience and the reports of others? Doesn't the behavior of even Self-realized Advaitins indicate that this inference has been made? It seems to me that someone who really took seriously the notion that her sensations do not correspond to a substratum of independent, existing things would regard the world as a series of disconnected flashes of images, feelings, and smells.

Another problem with the restriction of evidence to 'direct experience' is that it seems to be tantamount to solipsism. I have no 'direct experience' of the awareness of others, and, thus, shouldn't I also discount my own belief and the claims of others that they are aware?

As for the second challenge, it seems to me that the Advaita position is not easily reconciled with a naturalistic cosmology. If all there is is Consciousness, then how are we to make sense of the claims of science that there was a big bang, that stars and planets coalesced out of the remnants of the big bang, that life on Earth evolved from single-celled creatures, etc. If these events happened, they happened when no one was around to observe them. Hence, if they occurred, they occurred outside of awareness. Of course, they are now, in some sense, part of Consciousness, because we and many others are discussing them. However, if the Advaita position is right, these events did not become existent until theories about them were created. Again, this is extremely counterintuitive, and I think both of the challenges I've outlined explain why, at least as it stands, the Advaita position is explanatorily inadequate.

A. I don�t think your attempt to draw a parallel between digestion and consciousness succeeds. I would argue that digestion is a �process�. You acknowledge that you can observe the various stages of this process. Surely digestion is nothing more than the stages of which it consists? Consciousness on the other hand is something absolute, without which nothing else is. You are confusing consciousness and awareness when you say that we �gain� and �lose� consciousness. It is the brain activity and sense organs that cease to function in the normal way under anesthesia for example. To say that we are not conscious is not at all the same thing as saying that consciousness is absent.

I�m not sure what you mean when you say that you can�t find 'in the Advaita tradition an independent argument for the claim that consciousness is a basic, metaphysical feature'. The entire scriptural purport is to show that �all there is is brahman�; �brahman is real, the world is mithyA and the jIva is not other than brahman; �thou art That�; �Consciousness is brahman�, etc.

And the continuation of your parallel with digestion does not stack up (for me) either. Digestion is a series of cause effect relationships at the material level. When you mix starch with saliva, the enzymes chemically convert the starch to sugar � the first stage of the digestion process. Simply cause and effect. To claim that consciousness was like this would mean that the effect became the cause which would be counter to the second law of thermodynamics.

I don�t see that digestion is an epiphenomenon of the body either. It is simply the chemical process whereby some sort of solvent acts upon a substrate to extract something more subtle that was previously in combination with the substrate. (Clumsily put but I think you should get the point!) Consciousness doesn�t do anything but it is nevertheless that without which nothing gets done. It is certainly not a process or the result of anything.

Regarding the existence of separate objects, no one denies that this is our empirical experience but that does not mean it is really the case. The example of dreams amply illustrates this. The dream world is perfectly real for the dreamer and only realized to be illusory upon waking. And knowing the truth about brahman does not affect the experience of the world � we still experience the sun rise despite knowing that it does no such thing.

Where does your understanding that we have to rely only on �direct experience� come from? Advaita relies primarily on shAstrIya pramANa � testimonial evidence from the scriptures. Ideally this is backed up and explained by the guru � shabda pramANa. This is then subjected to reason. Only then may we realize for ourselves that what they say is true. There is no solipsism. There is �only the Self�, not �only me� � a big difference!

Your point about cosmology does not hold water. Irrespective of the arguments that the idea of creation makes no sense, there is no problem with the idea of evolution. Since there is only Consciousness, this could all happen without there needing to be any �intelligent� life form present to observe it.

Q. I agree with you that the analogy between digestion and consciousness is misguided. Incidentally, this is the philosopher John Searle's analogy. Digestion clearly does have coordinates in the space-time continuum, and, on the other hand, it is difficult on reflection to assign temporal and spatial boundaries to consciousness. However, I'm not convinced that to say that someone is 'unconscious' is not to say that consciousness is absent. In fact, one way of framing the Advaita position, I think, is to say that it regards 'unconsciousness' as the consciousness of absence rather than the absence of consciousness. I think the crux of that matter is whether consciousness can be assigned temporal/spatial boundaries. If it cannot, then it is limitless, it makes no sense to speak of its appearance and disappearance, and it must be the absolute reality.

A. Sounds like a good summary of the position to me! And is this not our experience? When we �come to� after being under anesthesia, do we not �know� that we have been �unconscious�? It is not an inference, made only after we look at the clock and see that time has passed. As T. S. Eliot says in the Four Quartets: 'Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing�'

Q. You said: 'I'm not sure what you mean when you say that you can't find "in the Advaita tradition an independent argument for the claim that consciousness is a basic, metaphysical feature". The entire scriptural purport is to show that "all there is is brahma"; "brahman is real, the world is mithyA and the jIva is not other than brahman"; "thou art That"; "Consciousness is brahman", etc.'

Well, the Advaita literature is, of course, full of these �assertions�. As I see it, there are two pillars of argumentation in the Advaita tradition: dRRigdRRishya viveka and avasthA traya. I don't see that either of these lines of reasoning establishes that Consciousness is the ultimate reality. The first shows that consciousness is not a 'thing', but then gravity, solidity, etc., are not things either (though they are features of the world and not the ultimate reality). The second line of reasoning shows that our self is not the body or the mind, but it does, I think, leave open the question of what the self is. In particular, it does not immediately follow that the self is Consciousness. Couldn't the self be some sort of potential of the body, i.e. I am an expression of the body (or a part/subsystem of the body) functioning in a certain way just as, for example, a song is an expression of a track on the CD and the stereo functioning a certain way?

A. You will not find any �proof� that Consciousness is the ultimate reality in the scriptures because none is possible. You will only find assertions and pointers. �Proofs� relate only to the phenomenal world. Enlightenment is the realization in the mind that Consciousness is the non-dual reality. It comes as the final recognition when the ignorance that causes us to see duality everywhere finally falls away.

Q. You said: 'And the continuation of your parallel with digestion does not stack up (for me) either. Digestion is a series of cause effect relationships at the material level. When you mix starch with saliva, the enzymes chemically convert the starch to sugar - the first stage of the digestion process. Simply cause and effect. To claim that consciousness was like this would mean that the effect became the cause which would be counter to the second law of thermodynamics.'

I don't follow you here. This would put the effect before the cause only if Consciousness is the ultimate reality, but that is of course exactly the question at issue.

A. This discussion arose in relation to Shankara�s example of �heat� burning the �fire�, etc. Not sure what I meant by that statement now (!) but hopefully the essay above will have clarified this point.

Q. You said: 'I don't see that digestion is an epiphenomenon of the body either. It is simply the chemical process whereby some sort of solvent acts upon a substrate to extract something more subtle that was previously in combination with the substrate. (Clumsily put but I think you should get the point!) Consciousness doesn't do anything but it is nevertheless that without which nothing gets done. It is certainly not a process or the result of anything.'

I agree that it is difficult to regard consciousness as a process, both because it seems irreducible and because it is difficult to situate it within space/time. I don't agree, however, that it doesn't do anything. In fact, it seems absolutely essential to cognitive relations like knowing, understanding, intention, etc., in a way that it is not essential to running, speaking, dancing, etc. On the face of it, at least, consciousness seems to be part of the causal nexus for cognitive relations (I can't understand something without being conscious of what's understood), but we can imagine unconscious zombies running, speaking, dancing, etc.

A. You are using �consciousness� here in the sense of �intelligence�. But this is not the sense in Advaita. Rather, intelligence is Consciousness reflected in the mind. All �action� relates to prakRRiti � the mithyA world of people and objects, not to Consciousness itself.

Q. I understand your point that ultimately there is no creation, according to Advaita. However, I'm still unclear about how we can make sense of evolution or any other part of scientific cosmology at the relative level of existence if all there is is Consciousness. As I understand it, to exist at the relative level on the Advaita view is to be an object of relative consciousness. However, there were no animals for the first 3.2 billion years of evolution, and, thus, there was, for all we know, no relative consciousness during this time frame. What can it possibly mean to say that this phase of evolution occurred if there was no awareness of it and Consciousness is all there is?

A. Again, you are confusing the non-dual brahman (which is synonymous with �Consciousness� as I have been using it, with a capital �C�) with the consciousness (small �c�) �exhibited� by a person. In fact, as I have been checking through the journal, I have had to change some of your �c�s to �C�s so as not to cause any more confusion. And readers should note that the last issue of akhaNDAkAra contains a number of instances where the wrong case has been used � my apologies!

The consciousness of a person is better called chidAbhAsa, which literally means �false appearance or reflection (AbhAsa) of consciousness (chit)�. Evolution is simply our attempt to rationalize what we now see, or infer, in respect of the changing form of Consciousness (capital �C�) at the level of appearance. There are, no doubt, theories and mathematical descriptions of the changing form of waves in the ocean but, in the final analysis, it is all only water. Also, �existence� relates to Consciousness itself, not to the object. When we say that the chair exists, what is actually the case is that brahman exists in the form of the chair. The chair itself is mithyA.

Hope all of this answers your questions� although I have a sneaking suspicion that it won�t!

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