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: I have noticed that the deeper I go into the advaitic mode of "thinking", my mind becomes more "creative" and also more "interested" in objective information/knowledge. Do you think this is a self-preservation reflex of the mind?

A: I'm not sure what you mean by 'going into the Advatic mode of thinking' but I think I recognise what you are getting at. Many people, when they first begin regular meditation, find that more 'interesting' or 'creative' thoughts seem to be arising, so that there is great temptation to follow these up to the detriment of the meditation. It does seem here that the mind is somehow 'rebelling against' the attempt to impose order upon it. There is a fallacy here, however, in the assumption that there is an entity called the mind, which has, so to speak, a mind of its own!

The point is that thoughts arise. Which thoughts do arise, and which are given attention, depends on the nature and upbringing etc. 'I am a separate entity' is a thought and 'I have a mind' is another thought. You may have noticed that, if you are trying to solve a particular problem, actively thinking about may fail to bring any solution. If, however, you forget about it and simply get on with whatever else you have to do, you may find that, in a relaxed moment at some later time, the answer will simply arise (as another thought).

The explanation is just that we cannot control what thoughts arise. They simply come in response to external events and other thoughts. And it is certainly true that 'creative' thoughts tend to come when the mind is still and there are no other competing thoughts, especially of the 'I want' variety.

So the answer to your question is that, no, there is no 'self-preservation' instinct here, because the mind is not a separately existing entity. It is simply that reasoning and enquiry operate more efficiently when there is no competition.

Q: What is knowledge? How does knowledge affect ignorance? What understands knowledge?

A: The short answer:

Ontologically knowledge, like everything else, is mithyA, having no existence apart from brahman. Epistemologically, at the level of vyavahAra, knowledge is that which removes ignorance, even if in the end it turns out itself to be false. Both ignorance and knowledge belong to the mind.

The much longer answer:

In Advaita, knowledge is said to be valid when it is not contradicted. The sort of example that is used is that of rope and snake. Knowing the object to be a snake is invalid knowledge, since it is contradicted later when we discover it to be a rope. Knowing it to be a rope, however, is not contradicted. This is only a temporary situation, though, which is why we have svataHprAmANyavAda, the theory of the “self validity of knowledge,” i.e. accepting a given explanation, if reasonable,

until something better comes along. This is because, if we examine the rope closely, it is found to consist of woven strands of fibre, perhaps hemp. Therefore, the rope is actually only a form of hemp and not an object in its own right at all. But this applies to the hemp, too. If we continue to analyse, we end up with molecules, then atoms, then sub-atomic particles and eventually just energy. The forms are imposed by the mind; the reality is always and only brahman.

This is less obvious with things like perceptions and thoughts, but they too are just movements of organised energy. Everything without exception is ultimately just a name and form of brahman. Thus it is that, what we thought we knew (to be true) turns out not to be. Our so-called knowledge turns out to be ignorance and it is sublated by a new knowledge. The only knowledge that cannot be sublated is the ultimate non-dual truth so that Knowledge (with a capital ‘K’) could be said to be a ‘description’ of brahman, in that it is ‘what is left’ when no new, sublating knowledge is possible. Some teachers speak of ‘Knowledge’ as a synonym for the Self. This is using the word in a metaphysical sense rather than an empirical one. At the level of the mind, knowledge comes and goes and may be valid or invalid but transcending this in a sense is ‘absolute knowledge’, which equates with Consciousness itself and has neither beginning nor end.

Krishna Menon also points out that ‘knowing’ is clearly different from ‘doing’, ‘perceiving’, ‘feeling’ and ‘thinking’, being always present and not coming and going like the others. Thus, he says, it is ‘of the nature of the Self’. Similarly, he says it is the ‘I-principle’ that is the knower.

Pedantically (and Vedantically!) the mind itself cannot know anything since it only comes about itself as a result of Consciousness acting through the insentient matter of the brain. The knowledge of some object ‘arises’ when the mind is impacted on by the object. But what is actually happening is that Consciousness, as the object, is manifesting to itself through the mind, which is itself also operating only by virtue of Consciousness. Thus, a good definition of knowledge is that it is the manifestation of Consciousness (to itself) through the mind.

It is possible to follow all of this and acknowledge its validity but I prefer to keep things as simple as possible on subjects such as this, which can become exceedingly complex. Modern teachers talk about our being ‘knowingness’ and many other artificial words. All language operates in and describes duality so it seems to me that this sort of thing can only confuse and mislead. Perception, thoughts, mind and knowledge itself are all meaningful only in vyavahAra. To my mind, knowledge too is mithyA as much as are the knower and the known. In the end, I prefer the view expressed by the Tripura Rahasya: “The greatest of all delusions is the conviction that knowledge is not a delusion.”

  If you are not satisfied with the above answer, please ask something more specific. As stated, it is a bit too general and it really would be possible to write a book on the subject, though I’m not sure I would want to attempt it! (For example – see Methods of Knowledge according to Advaita Vedanta, Swami Satprakashananda, Advaita Ashrama, 1965. ISBN 81-7505-065-9. I can heartily recommend this as both erudite and readable, if that is not a contradiction!) Or read the series about knowledge (analysis of the vedAnta paribhAshA) by Dr. Sadananda, beginning March 2008.

Q: How can one replace ordinary desires by a desire for the Self?

A: I could say read ‘How to Meet Yourself’, since this book is all about that! But obviously I won’t since that would just be opportunistic marketing! All desire is ultimately for the Self; a wish to ‘return to’ who we really are. Of course, we already are That but unfortunately do not know it. And so we mistakenly go after objects and experiences to try to find that ultimate happiness, continually looking outside when it is really already there inside, as it were. You will never get rid of desire – it is a function of the mind and our particular makeup (prArabdha saMskAra). The important thing is to recognise its intrinsic nature and not be taken in by it. Once this is completely understood, you can accede to a particular desire or not, depending on reasonable considerations rather than the demands of an ego.

Q: In Question 38 on depression you state: "suffering stems from mistaken identification with the body and mind". In the second part of the same question you say: "'Enlightenment' is effectively of the mind.."

"Mistaken identification with the body and mind" implies that the mind is illusory. If the mind is seen through as an illusion - then how can it be used as a tool for 'Enlightenment'?

Or is that the point: The mind is the tool that is used to realise 'Enlightenment', but in that 'Enlightenment' the mind is seen for what it is - an illusion.

It seems to be a bit of a paradox, could you help me out please?

A: "The mind is the tool that is used to realise 'Enlightenment', but in that 'Enlightenment' the mind is seen for what it is - an illusion."

That is very well put! This is why Taoism, for example, speaks about the gateless gate. It seems as if there is a gate to get through but, once you are 'there', you look back and see that there was no gate. It is also why neo-Advaitins continually talk of there being no-one to become enlightened, nothing to be done etc. or of everyone already being enlightened. We are already 'That' but we don't know it.

Ignorance itself is said to be anirvachanIya - not able to be categorized; literally: unutterable, indescribable, not to be mentioned; similarly as regards mAyA. We try to understand with the mind but this is not possible. Like the pole in pole-vaulting, it has to be let go of before we can pass over the bar, even though it has been the instrument by which we got there.

Q: Do you have any views about organisation X, which advertises courses in which the leaders claim the power to transmit enlightenment? They last several weeks and ccost thousands of dollars.

A: I have not heard of the organisation that you mention. However, I can tell you categorically that it is not possible to ‘transmit’ enlightenment. As you no doubt appreciate, we already are That (the Self, Consciousness, Brahman or whatever). The reason that we do not realise this is that it is obscured in the mind by ignorance. The only way that ignorance can be removed is through knowledge and that is transmitted in the usual manner – by a qualified teacher via word of mouth over a prolonged period. Furthermore, a genuinely qualified teacher will never ask for money in that way.

Q: Since the person can't awaken - as awakening is the seeing through of the person. And:
Since oneness, consciousness, being is the ground of everything (and every no thing) - IT is already always awake.
What exactly is it that awakens?

A: As you say, who you really are is already the Self. The Self is the only reality so it makes no sense to speak of this Self becoming enlightened.

Although in reality there is no person, it is at this empirical level of reality (vyavahAra) where there appears to be a separate person. The reason for this mistaken view of things is ignorance at the level of the mind. Specifically, the nature of this ignorance is mixing up the real and unreal - this is called adhyAsa. (Remember we are still talking about the empirical level, where there seem to be such things as minds.)

The only thing that can remove this ignorance is knowledge, which has to take place in this mind, since that is where the ignorance is. Accordingly, like it or not (and despite what other teachers may say - especially neo-Advaitin ones), enlightenment takes place in the mind. It is the 'mind' or person that awakens.

Of course, once this awakening has taken place, it is realized that the seeming person, mind and knowledge were all part of the mistaken view and that before, during and after, there was only the Self and no actual person to become enlightened.

adhyAsa is the 'weekly definition' for last week and you may find the essay on 'Self-knowledge and the Mind' will help understand this topic.

Q: So since the Self presents as the ignorant/separate person in the first place (so to speak). It also presents as the separate person seeing through this illusion of separation.

In this seeing through of the unreal the person is no more.

In a way, it still seems inaccurate to say that the person awakens - since at the point (I understand it is not an event in time) of awakening, there is no person.

I suppose it's similar to saying that someone is dead. To say John is dead is not true since death is the absence of John (John of course does not experience his own death). Is it a convenience to say that the person awakens (as in the above example about death)?

Sorry to be picky here - I suspect it's got something to do with the mixing up of levels.

A: No problems with being 'picky' - I can see you really want to get to the bottom of this and that is good! But it is very difficult to put clearly into words!

There is only ever the Self in reality. So the apparent persons and world that we perceive in our ignorance are already only and always the Self. The person in ignorance and the person seeing through the ignorance are equally only the Self. I think this is what you are saying in the first part.

You then say: "In this seeing through of the unreal the person is no more." In reality, there never was a person to begin with. There only appeared to be whilst there was ignorance. So, 'in the seeing through', there is not actually any change in reality. But the mistaken view that there was a person has now been dissolved.

The confusion of levels occurs when we try to speak of a person being enlightened. There are only (thought to be) persons in vyavahAra. Enlightenment means seeing through vyavahAra and knowing that there are no persons. Thus, enlightenment does not really have any meaning at all for the 'enlightened person'; it only has meaning for the 'person' who is not yet 'enlightened'.

So, yes, you are right when you say that "it still seems inaccurate to say that the person awakens". I suppose it's a bit like saying 'the bottle is broken' - as soon as the breaking occurs, there is no longer a bottle. (I guess this is the same as you are saying in your 'John is dead' example but that one has complex overtones!) As you further say, it is a convenience to say that someone has awakened. It seems meaningful to those who are still asleep.

Q: What do you think might happen if scientists cloned a person, suppose it was me!!! Would that new baby have part of my soul or spirit? And if it did, supposed it died, would I be diminished in any way? and do you think it would grow up completely the same or would its obviously different environment make it a person in its own right, thinking and behaving completely differently to myself?

A: There is no such thing as ‘my’ soul. In reality, there is only the non-dual Self – and ‘you’ are That. You are not ‘a part’ of That, like a wave in the ocean. There is only That. In the (apparent) world, That is manifest as many forms, which are given different names. But all of these ‘separate’ things are still That, just as rings and necklaces are all gold, but in a different form and given a different name. The reality of the ring is always only gold. The reality of 'you' is always only the non-dual Self.

The Self does not die. Bodies are apparently born and apparently die but you are not the body.

Behaviour of (apparent) persons is dictated by genetics and by environment (parents, education, society etc.). Therefore, the behaviour of a cloned person would certainly differ from that of the one from which it was cloned because the environmental factors would all be different. Furthermore, this behaviour is deterministic, following cause and effect laws (without any real free will as normally understood) so that, since the causes would inevitably be different, so would the effects. But none of this affects the Self in any way whatsoever. The Self of ‘you’ and the Self of ‘your clone’ would always be the same because there are not ‘two things’.

Q: I've just finished reading your new book (How To Meet Yourself ... and find true happiness) and it's turned my life upside down!

I want to offer my congratulations on such a superb piece of work as I can't disagree with any of your arguments. However, Dennis, it's left me realising how much I've been identifying myself with my mind for most of my life. And I'm now 49 years old. [I suspect the majority of the population is doing the same].

 I've also read so many books explaining why it's important to have "a purpose for existing" otherwise we'll drift aimlessly through life; they then explain how to go about finding our "purpose in life". I'm therefore beginning to realise this advice is wrong, because you say on the last page of your book that "ambitions and purpose are irrelevant."

Your book has brought up one major question: I can't deny that when I do certain things, for example, a favourite hobby, it makes me feel "happier" than an action such as  "ironing". Is this because I'm letting my "mind" dictate to me what I find happy? And if I am Happiness (consciousness) should I be "equally happy" no matter what I'm doing? I hope this makes sense.

Do you, Dennis, still find, with all your knowledge on this subject, that writing books is something that fulfills you more than, say, completing a tax return? And no doubt this then leads to the question: Do we find certain actions more fulfilling than others because of the conditioning in our childhood? If I have understood the conclusions of your work, should I be aiming to be equally happy no matter what I'm doing?

A: Thanks for the feedback - the first 'reader comment' on the book so it's encouraging!

The reason that 'purposes' are never going to lead to fulfilment is that they are based upon a false premise, namely that you are a separate person. 'The Book of One' will explain a lot more if you are interested in pursuing it and 'Back to the Truth' deals with the subject in all its amazing detail. And it is all totally logical and unarguable.

As regards your main question, what you 'like' is dictated by your nature and upbringing - genetic, family, education etc. All that is happening is that, when you are doing what you like, you are without any desires and desires are the source of unhappiness. No desires = satisfaction with the way things are = happiness. So, if you are doing something that you don't want to do, there will be a desire to be doing something else. Consequently, you won't be happy. My own 'upbringing' has resulted in an endless fascination for Advaita so yes, I am happy writing about it and definitely do it in preference to filling out tax returns. (Mind you, I usually don't mind doing that since I invariably get a refund at present, since writing books on Advaita does not bring in much money!)

There is no point in aiming to be equally happy whatever you are doing. There is no real choice in the matter. You will be influenced by all of the factors with which you come into contact. Hopefully, you will encounter influences that push you in a direction which leads you to understanding. If you do go on to read 'Book of One', it is possible that this understanding will grow and that eventually you will realise the truth about yourself and the world. Once that happens, there are no further concerns!

The whole point of How to Meet Yourself' was precisely to appeal to those people concerned about meaning and purpose and point them in the direction of a philosophy (i.e. Advaita) that resolves all of these issues for ever. But it is not an instantaneous process because we have a lifetime of conditioning in wrong thinking and it all has to be laboriously unravelled before the mind gains sufficient clarity to be able to see the truth.

Q: I noticed the question on your website which asked: "Do Thoughts Create Reality?" and I certainly understood your answer after reading your book. However, Dennis, do you feel we should "ignore" the "Law of Attraction" because it will only create "illusions". Or do you feel it's a useful tool as long as we realise we are only playing games with the "unreal".

Hardly a week goes by without a new book appearing about "Cosmic Ordering" and we now have a well-publicised DVD called "The Secret", about The Law of Attraction. It's certainly the hot topic of the moment.

A: This 'Law of Attraction' (which I had not heard of) immediately reminded me of 'The Power of Positive Thinking' - a book that used to be advertised on the back of newspapers decades ago. And, sure enough, this book was included in the list at Squidoo.

All it is saying is that those people who are optimistic are happier and more fulfilled, isn't it? But it's all relative. People and the world are ultimately no different from the dream of the individual mind. All is only relatively real, which is effectively unreal.

Have you read the material about mithyA at the website? mithyA and pa~ncha kosha and purpose, satyam and mithyA . In fact, you said that you had read my story of 'What is Advaita' posted a couple of weeks ago - that also deals with mithyA.

It is certainly true that you can live an enjoyable life or a life of suffering or anything in between and your attitude will certainly influence this. But this is not essentially any different from saying that you can have a good dream or you can have a nightmare. If you want to avoid the dream altogether, you have to wake up from the dream! If you want to 'escape' from saMsAra (the 'eternal round of birth and death' of the waking dream), you have to realise its illusoriness, too.

Yes, following the 'law of attraction' may well help the person that you take yourself to be to achieve your ambitions but, as you saw in the book (How to Meet Yourself), you are then simply brought to the realisation that you are still unfulfilled. This is inevitably so because you are not the person. Who you appear to be in the dream may find the buried treasure and marry the beautiful girl but all is seen to be worthless when you wake up. And it is no different in so-called 'real' life, because that, too, is effectively a dream.

So, in answer to your question, I would advise against being taken in by such things because, quite simply, they only operate within the context of the seeming world. In using them, you tacitly take the world to be real and this can only perpetuate saMsAra instead of helping you to free the mind from its dominion.

Q: If the whole point of lila is for the Self to be playing games of illusion with itself and to pretend to be separate beings, why is it that in some of these games there is the seeing through of the illusion? What would be the point of the Self revealing the illusion to itself, because surely once the illusion is revealed, the game is up and there is no point in the continuation of the game?

That's the main question, but I also have a side question. I've been reading the essays on your website written by Dr. K Sadananda, and somewhere he writes about how the progress made towards enlightenment in this lifetime is not lost in the next lifetime. This looks to me like an allusion to the
Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation, but if there is no separate individual entity, how can there be continuation between subsequent lifetimes of such non-existent entity? To say that a person for whom enlightenment happens very quickly upon hearing about Advaita must have made great spiritual
progress in previous lifetimes in order for this sudden enlightenment to have happened is, surely, creating causal links in the mind only? Isn't reincarnation an unprovable theory? Perhaps useful as a paradigm or a metaphor maybe, I'm not sure. It could be a bad metaphor though, as it could induce fear and anxiety about making spiritual progress in this lifetime to avoid hardship in future lifetimes.

A: Good questions!

The main thing to be borne in mind about lIlA is that it is just a placebo device to satisfy the questioning of the enquiring mind until such questions no longer arise. The key technique of teaching in traditional Advaita is called adhyAropa apavAda. In this, some positive statement (adhyAropa) is made about something (e.g. assigning attributes to brahman) and then later, once there is greater understanding, that statement is retracted (apavAda) as not actually true. It is simply not possible to make *any* statement about the nature of reality, much less to assign motivation to a supposed creator. So, yes, at a certain point in a seeker's progression, it can be useful to talk about 'playing games etc.' - this may stop the seeker from asking lots of unanswerable and unhelpful questions. But, beyond a certain point, these ideas cease to be helpful or meaningful.

The particular adhyAropa that is helpful at any given time really depends upon the particular seeker's nature. For some, i.e. those who subsequently ask questions such as the one you have asked(!), the lIlA concept is not particularly useful. Accordingly, my suggestion would be to apply apvAda now and move on to some more useful prakriyA!

The more fundamental aspect of your question - why some 'people' become enlightened and some don't - is much easier to answer once you have dropped the idea of a Self wanting to 'play games'. It is simply the case that in some minds, knowledge arises/arrives, which nullifies the ignorance that is covering over the truth. If you want to pursue the metaphor of game, however, you could say that there would not be much point in a game if there were not sometimes winners!

The same argument applies to reincarnation (which belief is prevalent in Hinduism as well as Buddhism). At the level of the empirical world (vyavahAra), where we believe ourselves to be bodies and minds, if bodies are considered to be real (as they are), then birth and death are also real and the process is cyclical. In order to explain the principle of karma, with cause and effect through action, it is necessary to postulate that minds accumulate saMskAra as the 'fruit' of those actions. For the whole process to work, it is then necessary to suppose that the mind, with its accumulated saMskAra, survives death and the 'soul' is reborn. As with lIlA, all of this is retracted once there is greater understanding but, for many, it serves a necessary and very useful function in preparing the mind. As you can imagine, it inculcates a very positive and unselfish outlook on life if you believe that bad actions may bring about rebirth as a cockroach!

Hope this helps - please come back if you have further questions.

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