Q. Once I went to a Buddhist internet forum to share my theory that I thought that nirguNa brahman and nirvANa were two different words for the same thing.
I was a bit excited thinking about what this might mean for the links between advaita (Shankara) and Buddhism, et cetera. I got a reply from an angry Buddhist telling me, No, brahma the creator god and nirvANa were definitely not the same. I gave up trying to explain. What are the subtle differences between the two ideas of nirvANa and nirguNa brahman? That is my question.
I will browse advaita.org.uk web site to get material by Shankara.
A. nirvANa is not actually a word that is used in advaita. What I understand to be the equivalent word is ‘mokSha’. This literally means liberation (i.e. from saMsAra, the cycle of birth and death). Pedantically, the ‘individual soul’ or jIva is already free or liberated – it was never bound in the first place. The problem is that the mind thinks that it is separate and suffering, etc., because it is ignorant of the truth – which is that ‘I am brahman’, the non-dual reality. As a result of mental preparation and listening to and reflecting upon the explanations given by a qualified teacher, this truth may be realized for oneself. This realization is an event in the mind, called enlightenment, which forever removes the mistaken beliefs. But the realized person continues in that body until its death (when the prArabdha karma is exhausted). Subsequently, that ‘person’ is not reborn. But, pedantically, nothing is ‘attained’ in this process. It is just that the already-existing truth is realized by the mind.
As I say, I don�t know the Buddhist definition or understanding of nirvANa. But your Buddhist informant has confused the creator god �brahma� with the non-dual reality �brahman�. If you want to talk about the saguNa aspect of brahman, the correct term is Ishvara.
Shankara is not the easiest philosopher to read in the original incidentally. If you seriously want to look into this, I suggest the Shankara Source Book � see my recommended reading on Shankara.
Practical requirements for studying advaita
Q. We've emailed a few times over the past year or so. I have a practical question
about studying advaita that I'd love your take on, should you have the time. I'm drawn to advaita. In fact, I registered to take the Chinmaya Foundation Introductory Advaita Course about a year ago. But after working through the first
chapter (several times), I ended up feeling so stifled by what was being asked of me as a student (to study only at certain times, to build an altar with a picture of a great spiritual teacher, to significantly change my everyday living habits, etc.) that I gave up. The teachings delighted me; the trappings did not.
My questions are:
- Can one study advaita without making the kind of life changes that the Chinmaya course asked of me? In other words, can advaita study accommodate itself to one's life rather than the other way around?
- Does one need a teacher to study advaita effectively?
- If yes, can it suffice to have an online teacher with whom I can exchange emails?
- If not, where/how do I create a personal study program?
Thank you for your help.
A. It is not necessary to change one's lifestyle. Certainly, worshipping at altars is not something that would appeal to Westerners and, whilst it can certainly be very beneficial to the right sort of mind, it would only be
counter-productive to the 'wrong' sort. Apart from attending regular classes with a qualified teacher (if possible) or regular study on your own (if not), the only really beneficial but time-consuming practice that I would recommend is meditation. Half an hour morning and evening is very helpful for the mind - and the practices that you need are all geared to instilling mind and sense control, enhancing your ability to give attention, discriminate, etc.
Having a teacher is extremely helpful - some would say essential but I would have to disagree with that since I have not had one for the past 12 years - and the ones I had before that did not really understand advaita! But, if you don't have a teacher, you are likely to pursue wrong paths, pick up incorrect understanding, etc. Coping with this involves lots more time. I was only able to do this, I think, because I was without a job and decided to write books on the subject. This meant I had to read lots, ask questions on Egroups and was able to devote most of every day, including weekends (and still do)!
I don't know of any teachers (that I could recommend) who teach via email, although it is certainly possible that many of those who take formal classes will also respond to occasional, individual questions via email. And I haven't come across any websites or books that deal with 'personal study programs'. If you know what you need, it comes down to personal discipline I guess. And if you don't know what you need, read lots of recommended books and join Advaitin Yahoo Group.
Q. Do you feel that not having had a (good) teacher did any permanent 'damage' to your advaitin development? I'm thinking of some self-taught guitar players who learned the technically 'wrong' left-hand position and, 20 years down the road, feel that their playing suffers from this early bad habit.
A. Interesting idea - and I'm aware of the guitar problem; I did exactly that! (Though haven't played for well over a year now because my right-hand thumb nail keeps disintegrating at the tip.) But enlightenment is binary and irreversible. The process of acquiring Self-knowledge is gradual, and if you don't have a good teacher you may take wrong turnings; acquire wrong ideas which then have to be corrected later, etc. But, once the 'penny drops', it drops to the same place however you got there.
Incidentally, did I tell you that the best teacher to read, bar none (to my knowledge) is Swami Dayananda. Probably anything by him is worth reading and likely to prove helpful. Go to Arsha Vidya bookstore and order some!
Q. He's written so many books! Might you be able to recommend, say, three that would be appropriate for a (relative) beginner like me?
A. The Self-knowledge cannot go away but the behavior/degree of suffering, etc., is a moveable feast dependent on prior degree of mental preparation. See all the various Q&As on jIvanmukta.
- Dialogues with Swami Dayananda (both these are short books but excellent)
- Talks and Essays of Swami Dayananda (these are large books and there are two volumes)
My next book will be Advaita Made Easy! (That's not counting the much expanded and rewritten second edition of Book of One which is due out next month.)
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