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' .

Inquiry into the nature of 'I'

Q. I am making a bold attempt to boil down the teachings of advaita to a very simple logical/definitional essence (see below). Have you ever tried something similar? If you have a chance and can have a look at what I've written below, I'd love to hear your thoughts. All suggestions are welcome.

Number 1

  • I exist
  • I know I exist
  • I am therefore conscious

Number 2

  • I am within existence
  • Existence is therefore conscious

Number 3

  • Existence has no boundary
  • Existence is therefore limitless

Number 4

  • Existence is therefore limitless and conscious

Number 5

  • Objects are defined by their name and form
  • Name and form are manifest within limitless conscious existence
  • Objects are therefore limitless conscious existence

Number 6

  • Subject 'I' is not an object
  • Subject 'I' is therefore without name and form
  • Subject 'I' is therefore limitless
  • Subject 'I' has knowledge of objects and is therefore conscious
  • Subject 'I' is therefore limitless conscious existence

Number 7

  • Both the Subject 'I' and all Objects are limitless conscious existence
  • I am therefore limitless conscious existence

A. I did once think that I would try to set down what was effectively a �logical proof� for non-duality but I never quite got around to trying seriously. So I would certainly agree that it is an interesting idea. But I think that it is actually not possible in the end. All our reasoning relates back to perception and brahman cannot be perceived. This is why there is a need for shabda pramANa � scriptures and a guru to interpret them for us. These speak of brahman and give lots of pointers and negations, etc., until such time as we directly intuit the truth � but this is still not a perception, and not itself derivable by reason.

The truth of advaita is not contradictory to reason, which is why we can (and should) always subject what we read or are told to rigorous reason in the light of our own experience. But it cannot get us there on its own.

But don�t let me stop you trying! I do think, though, that for your arguments to be persuasive, they must be set down clearly step by step so that each stage in your argument may be followed. So, for example, I am OK with your �Number 1� but you lose me at �Number 2�. What does �I am within existence� mean? What is this saying which is different from �I exist�? Doesn�t saying that �something exists� simply mean that �I am aware of it�? But is this true? Is it not simply the case that I am aware of some activity in my brain?

It�s a minefield! And you have to anticipate the readers objections and counter them before they are able to grow.

Q. Thanks for the feedback. First to your specific point regarding Number 2, the point is actually very basic. Since I am an existent, conscious entity, then we know that existence must be conscious (i.e. not inert). But this just proves your point that in this type of work, wording is critical.

I do want to take exception to your larger point about a logical proof not being possible. The way I think about it, a logical proof uses a series of assumptions that seem reasonable and then arrives at a conclusion. So what you can prove to someone logically actually has as much to do with what foundational assumptions you can get someone to agree with as much as it does being able to draw a conclusion (e.g. through deduction).

In this context, do you think the issue is more on the assumption side or on the reasoning side? I think most people would agree with what I would call key assumptions (in this framework) such as 'I exist', 'I am conscious', 'I know my thoughts, feelings, and emotions', etc. The question then becomes which (if any) of the great key statements of advaita (e.g. thou art that) can one prove logically based on these assumptions. Perhaps you are correct that you can't prove any of them. But it is definitely fun to try!

A. I still don�t follow your reasoning on that point, I�m afraid. To substitute the nouns in your argument, I could say:

Since this ruler is a wooden, straight object, then we know that wood must be straight. Apart from which, I don�t actually see �existence� as being something that you can predicate.

But you might actually be interested in studying the third chapter of Gaudapada�s kArikA on the mANDUkya upaniShad. In his introduction to this, Shankara says: 'Now it is asked whether non-duality can be established only be scriptural evidence or whether it can be proved by reasoning as well. It is said in reply that it is possible to establish non-duality by reasoning as well. How is it possible? This is shown in this chapter on advaita.'

My next book but one is on this text, so if you can hang on for a couple of years�

How does a plant grow without an observer?

Q. If I left a plant in my backyard and there is no one to look at it for three weeks, then how we can explain one inch of growth in a three-week time lapse? My question is: If the idealism theory of advaita has some validity, then why after three weeks [with no sentient being perceiving it] does the plant grow one inch? How can we explain the change [its growth] in the time lapse when there was not an observer or perceiver present? If we follow the idealist notion that 'to exist is to be perceived', then how we can explain the one-inch grow?

A. This is one of those �confusion of levels� problems. From the point of view of absolute reality, there is only brahman � no plant and no observer. At the level of empirical reality, there is a separate plant and a separate observer and they are born, grow and die quite independently (although if you leave it for three weeks without watering, you might just bear some moral responsibility for its death!).

Since there is only the non-dual brahman, even at the �empirical� level�, it follows that all attempts to explain things must be wrong in the final analysis. Explanations are interim only, to provide some satisfaction for the inquisitive mind. The interim explanation that is usually employed by traditional advaita is that objects have an independent existence because they are created by Ishvara. So the plant continues to grow, even though there might not be any observers. There aren�t many plants that you can actually see growing anyway.

Another way of looking at it is that the plant and its soil substrate are simply name and form of brahman. Food from the soil brahman is simply moving into the plant brahman, which therefore grows. Just as water moves from ocean to wave as it crashes onto the shore.

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012